Connellsville, Pa. was incorporated as a township in 1793 and a borough in 1806. Connellsville became a city in 1911, after merging with nearby New Haven two years earlier. The area around Connellsville in Fayette County experienced a large increase in population in the 1880s with the development of the Connellsville Coalfield and the production of coke.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the first Jewish families to settle in Connellsville arrived before heavy industry reached the area. The Goldsmith family and the Gustav Boasch (or Basck) family had settled in the Connellsville area by 1859, or perhaps earlier. By the turn of the 20th century, enough Jewish families had settled in the area to start a congregation. They chartered Bnai Israel Congregation of Connellsville and New Haven about 1898, according to the American Jewish Yearbook and historian Jacob Feldman.
The early Jewish community of Connellsville appears to have had a liberal and an orthodox contingent, both of which attracted the attention of Jewish communal leaders in Pittsburgh. In 1890, Rabbi Moshe Shimon Shivitz of the Orthodox Shaaray Torah Congregation sent the newly immigrated Rabbi Jacob Goldfarb to Connellsville. A month later, Rabbi Goldfarb was transferred to nearby Washington, where he remained for 50 years. In 1901, Rabbi Michael Fried of the Conservative Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh traveled to Connellsville to establish a Jewish Religious Society and a religious school. By 1903, the society counted some forty members, according to local newspaper accounts from the time. Whether the society and its school were associated with Bnai Israel Congregation is unclear from the reports. In bylaws written about 1908, Congregation Bnai Israel described its denomination as being “conservative-orthodox,” which suggests some accommodation between various factions within the community.
After graduating from Yale University and working in Europe, Edgar Kaufmann operated a store in Connellsville, although there is no record of his participation in the local Jewish community before he returned to Pittsburgh in 1909 to work for his family.
Congregation Bnai Israel acquired a building and neighboring lot at 434 N. Pittsburg St. from the United Presbyterian Church in 1910 and converted it into a synagogue. The following year, the congregation hired Rev. Samuel Strauss, who stayed with the congregation until 1918, when he took a position with two congregations in Altoona. The congregation remained in the synagogue for the remainder of its existence, but heavily renovated the building in 1953 and 1954.
The Jewish community of Connellsville founded B’nai B’rith Lodge No. 508 in 1901, but the lodge appears to have disbanded over the following decade. As part of a regional canvassing campaign, Richard Rauh and Edward Hemple visited Connellsville in 1916 to establish a B’nai B’rith lodge along with members from the nearby boroughs of Mt. Pleasant and Scottdale. By 1920, a group of Jewish women in Connellsville had joined with women in nearby Uniontown to start a National Council of Jewish Women chapter.
The American Jewish Yearbook listed a Jewish population of 383 for Connellsville in its 1918-1919 edition. The figure is most likely inflated, given that the Jewish Criterion counted only 75 families in the community the following year. The American Jewish Yearbook also listed lower Jewish populations for Connellsville: 100 in its 1927-1928 edition, 150 in its 1940-1941 edition, 160 in its 1951 edition and 110 in its 1984 edition. As the size of the local Jewish community shrank in the early 1960s, some members of Bnai Israel Congregation joined one of the two congregations in nearby Uniontown, Pa.