Although some historical accounts suggest a Jewish family had settled in Uniontown as early as 1836, the confirmed beginning of a Jewish community dates to merchants who established businesses in the city after 1865. Among them were Solomon Fell, Max Baum, the brothers Sol and Joseph Rosenbaum, G. M. Silverman, the brothers Barney and Harris Cohen, and Julius Stern. These men and their families started an informal prayer service as early as 1882, established a Jewish cemetery in Hopwood in 1883, organized a religious school as early as 1889, and established B’nai B’rith Lodge No. 471 in 1898, according to reminiscences by an early member and other accounts.
These first families were largely from Germany. Toward the end of the 1890s, Jewish families from Lithuania, Hungary, Russia and other Eastern Europe countries also began settling in Uniontown. By the turn of the century, the small Jewish community was divided into Orthodox and Reform contingents of roughly equal size. The Orthodox group had approximately 50 members when it chartered Congregation Tree of Life in February 1902. Its early leaders included Solomon Cohen, David Friedberg and Aaron Feldstein. The congregation held services in rented rooms until 1908, when it spent $12,000 to purchase and remodel the “White School,” a former schoolhouse on Fayette Street. Rabbi Aaron Mordechai Ashinsky of Pittsburgh presided over the dedication. In 1924, the congregation built a new $44,796 synagogue on Pennsylvania Avenue.
The Reform group quickly outgrew its accommodations in private homes and occupied various locations downtown before settling on the Standard Club above a store on Main Street. In 1903, Rabbi J. Leonard Levy of Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh was addressing this group when he overheard some people discussing the idea of starting a congregation. As Jacob Feldman described the incident in The Jewish Experience in Western Pennsylvania, A History: 1755-1945, “When he came to the podium, the men were puffing their cigars and sipping coffee. He discarded his prepared speech and instead urged that a new congregation be organized ‘right then and there.’” At a meeting at the Standard Club on June 10, 1904, representatives founded the Hebrew Congregation of Uniontown, which was renamed Temple Israel a few weeks later. They formally chartered the congregation on August 19, 1904, with 27 charter members. They dedicated a $25,000 red brick synagogue on East Lafayette Street on August 30, 1907.
With the two congregations in place, the wider Jewish community quickly expanded. By 1920, the city had a Zionist District, a Hadassah chapter, a Young Men’s Hebrew Association and shared a chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women with nearby Connellsville. Each synagogue had a Ladies’ Auxiliary. A group from Tree of Life established a B’nai B’rith chapter called the Solomon Cohen Lodge No. 201. The community launched a Jewish Relief Campaign in 1919 and hosted a delegation from the Zionist Commission in January 1922. By 1927, approximately 1,100 Jews lived in Uniontown. The city was then tied with Homestead as the fifth largest Jewish population in Western Pennsylvania.
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Given its distance from Pittsburgh and its importance within Fayette County, Uniontown became a regional hub for Jews living throughout the region. As other congregations in the county shrank or closed, the two Uniontown congregations attracted members from nearby Brownsville, Connellsville, Masontown and Mount Pleasant.
Unlike most small towns in Western Pennsylvania, Uniontown had a United Jewish Federation and a Jewish Community Center. The former was started as early as 1939 and managed some of the larger communal fundraising efforts. The latter was chartered in 1946, after the community purchased the Harry Whyel estate on West Main Street. The grounds included a baseball field, a tennis court, a basketball court and a swimming pool, while the building included a kitchen and dining room, a 450-seat auditorium, several game rooms, nurseries, activity rooms and a library. Umbrella institutions such as these were more common to major urban areas like Pittsburgh.
Through the middle decades of the 20th Century, the Jewish community of Uniontown undertook several initiatives to improve relations with the wider city. As early as 1949, the Jewish Community Center competed in a citywide church basketball league. The center also had a bowling league with four teams named after Zionist leaders: the Ben Gurions, the Brandeis, the Weizmans and the Herzels. Tree of Life sponsored Boy Scout Troop No. 6. The community had AZA and B’nai B’rith Girls chapters and later participated in regional B’nai B’rith Youth Organization events. In 1957, the B’nai B’rith Fayette Lodge No. 471 had its first Sports Nights, an annual event to honor teenage athletes throughout the county. The ceremony was non-denominational and was established to improve interfaith relations, according to local B’nai B’rith officials. In 1982, Lodge No. 471 commissioned the artist Zeljko Kujundzic to create a Holocaust Memorial on the grounds of the Jewish Community Center. The memorial, titled Gates of Life, features a 16-foot archway of roughhewn sandstone set in a contemplative garden. The shape of the monument spelled chai, Hebrew for “life.”
During these decades, Congregation Tree of Life gradually changed its ritual practices. The congregation allowed mixed seating in 1957 and joined the Conservative movement in 1959. In 1977, the congregation began counting women for the quorum of 10 men traditionally required to read the Torah during prayer services, although it would take another 20 years before the congregation allowed women to read from the Torah.
Temple Israel joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations in 1924 and remained a member through the remainder of its existence. The congregation made two large liturgical change over the years, switching from the Jastrow-Szold Prayer Book to the Union Prayer Book in 1929 and switching to the new Gates of Prayer in 1976. The congregation employed at least 18 rabbis, including two who had particularly noteworthy tenures: Rabbi Ludwig Roeder, who filled the pulpit from 1946 until his retirement in 1956, and Rabbi Sion David, who filled the pulpit from 1976 until his retirement in 2003.
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Tree of Life and Temple Israel both saw steep declines in membership toward the end of the century. Temple Israel had approximately 130 members when Rabbi Sion was installed in 1976 and less than 20 by the time he retired in 2003. Tree of Life had approximately 145 member units when it joined the Conservative movement in 1959.
Although the two congregations held a unified prayer service as early as 1972 and had merged their religious schools by 1977, efforts to fully merge the two congregations failed on at least three occasions. The closest attempt at a merger was in 1995, when the matter came within two votes of passing. The last merger attempt occurred in 2000.
Temple Israel sold its synagogue in 1995 and began meeting in the Jewish Community Center. The congregation employed a fulltime rabbi until at least 2008 and officially closed in 2012. Tree of Life employed a full time rabbi until 1995, when congregants began leading services. The congregation sold its synagogue in 2015. The community also put the Jewish Community Center building up for sale in 2015.