Jeannette, Pa. was incorporated as a borough in 1889, after a nearby natural gas discovery brought glass production to the area and the Pennsylvania Railroad Corporation added a local station on its mainline. By the turn of the 20th century, Jeannette had four glass plants and on its way to seven, including the largest tableware glass factory in the world.
Morris Davis came to Jeannette from his native Baltimore by way of DuBois, Pa., in August 1888. He opened a general mercantile store in West Jeannette, Pa., and later a painters’ supply store in East Jeannette, Pa., according to Listen to Our Words, a collection of oral histories from the Jewish communities of Westmoreland County. He was elected Justice of the Peace of Jeannette in 1899. Hyman and Yetta Rosenberg arrived from Slovakia soon after.
Within a few years, other Jewish families had moved to the growing town. Frank and Mary Levin immigrated to Mt. Pleasant, Pa., from present-day Poland in 1905 and moved to Jeannette the following year. They started an upholstery business before expanding into used furniture. Frank Levin eventually opened Levin’s Furniture Store on Clay Avenue. Morris and Yetta Sandson came to the area from Poland and started a dairy farm in neighboring Grapeville, Pa., in 1906. Avram and Frayda Bleiberg came to Latrobe, Pa. from Austria in 1909 and stayed with Harry and Lena Tapolsky for a week. They settled in nearby Kingston, Pa., until 1911, when they started working on a farm in Jeannette.
A group of approximately 12 Jewish families began holding services at the home of Aaron Baer on Cuyler Avenue in 1906. They founded Chevra Sholom Congregation in 1910 and elected Frank Levin to be their first president. “Their first act was to establish a perpetual fund for Jewish wanderers,” according to a community history included in the program for the dedication of the synagogue. A committee of the congregation led by Levin and Elezer Katz raised $16,000 during 1918 and 1919 to help sufferers of World War I.
Whereas most small-town Jewish congregations in the region acquired a permanent synagogue within a decade of incorporating, Chevra Sholom held services in rented halls for decades. They initially leased Bradley Hall on Sixth Street for the High Holidays, followed by Baughman Hall, the fourth floor of the Maxwell Building, Moose Hall, Mechanics Hall and other buildings, according to the community history. Even without a synagogue, the members of Chevra Sholom supported at least two rabbis in its early years. Rabbi Israel Silver came to Jeannette from Bialystok, Russia and taught religious classes. Rabbi Nachman David Jablonsky immigrated to the United States from a town near Vilnius, Lithuania, and settled in 1918. He was a shochet (ritual butcher), which allowed Jewish families in Jeannette to acquire kosher meat without having to travel to Greensburg.
Chevra Sholom members founded a chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women in 1918. One of the first ventures of the chapter was to establish a religious school. The school operated out of various rented halls until 1934, when the council rented an apartment on Clay Avenue to use as both a schoolhouse and a synagogue. As the community grew, the Jeannette chapter split from the national organization and created the Chevra Sholom Sisterhood. The congregation continued to operate a Southwestern District of Pittsburgh Jewish Religious Schools program in Jeannette for decades.
The Jewish population of Jeannette grew through the first half of the 20th century. The American Jewish Yearbook listed a population of 80 in its 1918-1919 edition, 200 in its 1928-1929 edition and 360 in its 1940-1941 edition. One early resident, Morris Bleiberg, claimed that during a brief period in the early 1900s, Jeanette had a larger Jewish population than nearby Greensburg, although no census figures support the assertion.
By the early 1930s, the Jewish community of Jeannette was outgrowing its temporary accommodations. Chevra Sholom had purchased a lot on Sixth Street in 1922, but plans to build a synagogue faltered until 1938, when the congregation voted to sell the property and instead purchase and renovate a Methodist Church at 600 Gaskill Avenue, according to an oral history from Dr. Albert Jablonsky. The congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement, largely to accommodate mixed seating in the sanctuary, according to Jablonsky.
At a cornerstone laying ceremony on March 26, 1939, the Chevra Sholom synagogue was dedicated in memory of Anna Gross, an early member. The building was dedicated on August 27, 1939. The synagogue was so close to the railroad tracks that bar mitzvah boys paused their Torah readings if a train happened to come past. By the 10th anniversary of the dedication, in 1949, the congregation had symbolically burned its mortgage. Rabbi Morris Baker was leading the congregation at the time of the dedication, and Rabbi Theodore Stampfer was leading the congregation at the time of the 10th anniversary. At the time of the dedication in 1939, Chevra Sholom had 67 members, the Chevra Sholom Sisterhood had 56 members and the Chevra Sholom Junior Council had 22 members.
Even though the synagogue fostered a sense of community in Jeannette, younger Jews from smaller towns throughout Westmoreland County generally congregated in the county seat of Greensburg for social events like parties, dances and holiday functions. A Young Israel League included members from Greensburg, Jeannette, Latrobe and Mt. Pleasant. A group of young women from Jeannette and nearby Irwin formed the “Winette” chapter of B’nai B’rith Girls, which remained popular into the 1950s. Chevra Sholom fielded a sports team—called simply “Synagogue”—in a local church league.
At one point, almost the entire business district of Jeannette was composed of Jewish merchants. The Davis family of Greensburg opened a grocery store in Penn, Pa. before starting the Arlington Market in the Arlington section of Jeanette in 1930. A merchant named Eleazer Katz (1875-1942) served as volunteer fire chief for more than 20 years before being elected burgess of Jeannette in 1917. He served three terms in the highest office in the borough before being elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives on the Republican ticket in 1926 and again in 1928. He lost his bid for a third term in 1930. The Eleazar Katz B’nai B’rith lodge in Jeannette was named in his honor.
A local Jewish resident named Ed Hershberg opened the Baldoc Country Club in nearby Irwin in the late 1930s or mid-1940s. The club was intended to be a Jewish alternative to local country clubs that refused to accept Jewish members and also to the Westmoreland Country Club, which was a Jewish club but required elite social connections for membership. The Baldoc Country Club later changed its name to the Lincoln Hills Country Club.
The total population of Jeannette peaked during World War II, declined gradually through the 1960s and dropped steeply after 1970. The Jewish community followed a similar trend. In its 1951 edition, the American Jewish Yearbook listed a population of 200, down more than half from a decade earlier. Chevra Sholom Congregation merged with B’nai Israel in Greensburg in 1967 or 1979, according to various accounts.