Monessen’s Temple Beth Am closing, estate sale Friday
Jack Bergstein was there when the light went out.
A lifelong member of Temple Beth Am in Monessen, the 79-year-old recently attended the deconsecration service for the Reform synagogue. Part of his job was to put out the ner tamid, the “eternal light” found in every synagogue in front of the ark that contains the Torah scroll.
“When I turned that light off, it had a major impact on me,” he said. “That final service was very draining on me.”
Bergstein is helping oversee the closing of the synagogue and the removal of everything inside, both the sacred and general articles.
On Friday, the congregation will hold an estate sale for the disposal of hundreds of items — dinnerware, kitchen appliances, artwork, musical instruments, furniture, bookcases, books, assorted Judaica and more.
The building, 100 Watkins St., also is for sale, although it is not yet listed with a real estate agent.
The sale culminates a process that has been several years in the making, although the gradual decline of Temple Beth Am and small-town synagogues throughout Western Pennsylvania has been a trend for decades.
“I don’t think it’s so much the Jewish community — it’s the general community. We’re losing population,” Bergstein said. “People don’t want to admit it, but in Western Pennsylvania we’re losing population drastically. In Monessen, we lost close to 5,000 jobs in the steel mill in the 1980s.”
Religious congregations in the Mon Valley, both Christian and Jewish, have suffered as the economic fortunes of their host communities have waned. Bergstein noted that at one time, the Monessen area supported seven Catholic churches and now barely sustains one.
Temple Beth Am started out as Kneseth Israel Congregation on Schoonmaker Avenue earlier in the 20th century. The current building was dedicated in 1953. Kneseth Israel merged with Rodef Shalom Synagogue in Charleroi in the early 1970s to form Temple Beth Am, Bergstein said.
At its height, the Monessen congregation was spiritual home to about 150 Jewish families and was served by a full-time rabbi. At the time of the decision to close, about 15 families remained on the membership rolls and Sabbath services were being held once a month, he said.
“We just ran out of people. It’s become an older congregation,” Bergstein said.
For the past year, Temple Beth Am — Hebrew for “house of the people” — was served by Rabbi Sara Perman, a retired rabbi from Greensburg. On the weekend of the synagogue’s closing, Perman led a service adapted from the Saturday Havdalah service, which is typically recited at home for the closing of the Sabbath. On Sunday, she led a service at the Temple Beth Am Cemetery, where congregants buried religious books, old prayer shawls and other items.
“In reality, the congregants are mourning,” Perman said.
That process has repeated itself in Jewish synagogues throughout the region, including Beth Israel Congregation in Latrobe, Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle, and Congregation Tree of Life and Temple Israel in Uniontown.
As those congregations have faced the prospect of downsizing or even closing, they have found help from the Jewish Community Legacy Project. The Atlanta-based nonprofit serves small-town Jewish congregations that are looking for a way to preserve their legacy.
The organization helped Temple Beth Am develop a legacy plan that will ensure the proper use of the Torah scroll and other religious articles, the continuing care and maintenance of the Temple Beth Am Cemetery in Rostraver, and wise stewardship of its financial resources.
“They really acted responsibly and demonstrated good governance in doing their planning,” said Noah Levine, JCLP vice president. “Now they can implement components of their plan, instead of scrambling and wondering what to do.”
Levine made several trips to Monessen, including as recently as July, in the course of helping the congregation plan for the future. Neither the sale of a building nor the disposal of its contents necessarily means the end of a congregation, he said.
In the case of Temple Beth Am, its archives, including paper and photographic records, will go to the Rauh Jewish Archives of the Heinz History Center, its cemetery will be maintained by the Jewish Cemetery and Burial Association of Greater Pittsburgh, and a cemetery endowment will be managed by the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, Levine said.
“Their No. 1 priority is the cemetery, which is true for many congregations,” he said. “They want to make sure the cemetery is well funded, so they know it will be taken care of in perpetuity.”
Sacred objects will be donated to Jewish organizations that can use them, and the memorial plaques in the sanctuary will be transferred to a building on the cemetery grounds, Levine said.
General items that are not sold at Friday’s estate sale will be available for sale through private arrangement with Caring Transitions of Westmoreland County, the estate company. Sanctuary seating will not be sold until the future of the building is determined, said Michael Adametz, Caring Transitions owner.
Friday’s sale is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. To contact Caring Transitions, call 724-798-4593.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .