Synagogue which runs out of people buries its past

END OF AN ERA: Congregants of Tifereth Israel gather at the cemetery in New Castle to bury boxes of ritual objects

A SYNAGOGUE has had to bury its past... because it has run out of people, writes ALANNA COOPER.

A pit was dug at Congregation Tifereth Israel’s cemetery in the Pennsylvania town of New Castle.

Twenty people came to mourn, wiping tears from their cheeks... but no hearse would be arriving.

For they were burying cardboard boxes containing yahrzeit plaques, prayer shawls and other ritual items.

The problem was that this town of 22,000 residents on the Ohio border had run out of Jews.

And the mourners had come to bury, in a sense, their synagogue.

Congregation Tifereth Israel was founded nearly 125 years ago.

In 1894, synagogue members lived in a busy town with a suddenly booming economy.

Linked first to the canal system and later to the railroad, the population of New Castle swelled at the turn of the 20th century. Tin plate and paper mills, and steel and ceramic factories brought great prosperity to the region.

Ancillary businesses cropped up. And many of them — drug stores, department stores, furniture stores, groceries – were owned by New Castle’s Jewish residents.

Bright-eyed and lively, Bruce Waldman told me that he was born in New Castle in 1942, and that one day he will be buried here.

His plot in the Tifereth Israel cemetery is already designated. Waldman’s father also was a New Castle native and is buried here.

His grandfather, who was among the New Castle Jewish community founders, had emigrated from eastern Europe via Pittsburgh, 50 miles south.

When Waldman was a boy in the 1950s, the Jewish community boasted two synagogues — the Reform Temple Israel joining Tifereth Israel, with 300 to 400 active families in total.

As the economy changed in the 1960s, New Castle’s population dwindled and by 1990 had dipped to 28,334 residents.

Those looking for a more robust Jewish community for their children went elsewhere. Others simply moved away for better economic opportunities.

Even after the two congregations merged, it became difficult to gather a minyan for Shabbat services. Members began to consider the possibility of winding down synagogue operations.

“We never ran out of money,” Sam Bernstine, the congregation’s president said, “but we ran out of people.”

He asked his fellow congregants: “Do you want a dignified end? Or do you want the last person left to have to shut off the lights?”

So step by step, the synagogue divested of its material assets. Nine Torah scrolls went to congregations across the world... but for prayer books, prayer shawls, curtains for the ark and yahrzeit plaques there was only burial.

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