Brownsville, Pa., in the northwest corner of Fayette County, was the site of a fort in the mid-18th century. It was settled as a trading post toward the end of the century, and by 1800 had become the largest community in Western Pennsylvania, surpassing even Pittsburgh. It was incorporated as a borough in 1814.
The first Jewish settler in Brownsville was most likely Moses Heller, who was operating a business in the borough by 1870, according to The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania, A History: 1755-1945. A larger wave of Jewish immigration came to Brownsville about twenty years later, when merchants including Samuel Green, Samuel Brown, Joseph Wise, the Goldstein family, J. Trumper, H. L. Beck, Abram Miller and others settled in the borough, according to a 1919 history of the community in the Jewish Criterion. By 1906, a small group was meeting for worship in the house of Sam Birkenfield in West Brownsville, across the Monogahela River. They chartered Congregation Ohave Israel about 1907. Charter members were Max G. Krause, Joseph N. Cooper, I. Herskovitz, John Altman, Edward Gottesman, Morris Lebowitz, Harry Levy, Abe Miller and B. Wise, according to a 1943 article in the Jewish Criterion, on the occasion of a mortgage burning. A second group of nineteen Jewish men who were predominately from Hungary and were living primarily in South Brownsville and across the river in West Brownsville chartered a second congregation called Tree of Life in 1915, although it soon disbanded and joined Ohave Israel.
Ohave Israel (sometimes spelled “Ohev Israel” or “O’Have Israel,” in official documents) met in private homes until 1916, when its members dedicated a wood frame synagogue on Arch Street between High Street and Prospect Street. The building was destroyed in a fire two years later. The congregation broke ground on a second synagogue at 210 2nd Street in Brownsville in 1919 and dedicated the building the following year. The spiritual leader of the congregation at the time of the second dedication was Rabbi J. Shapo, who had trained both at a teacher’s institute in Vilna, in present-day Lithuania, and at the University of Oregon.
The Jewish population of the Brownsville and neighboring South Brownsville continued to grow over the following decade but started to decline in the years before World War II. The American Jewish Yearbook listed 58 members of Ohave Israel in a directory in its 1919-1920 edition and listed a Jewish population of 900 in its 1928-1929 edition, 725 in its 1940-1941 edition, 250 in its 1951 edition and 150 in its 1984 edition. The congregation disbanded in 1969 and sold its synagogue in 1979. A few years later, Ohave Israel donated its ceremonial fixtures to Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, which used them to furnish its new to Leizer Balk-Ahavas Zedeck Chapel. In early 2016, the former “Brownsville shul” was added to the National Register of Historic Places.