Warren was settled in the late 18th century and grew through the first half of the 19th century, as lumber companies established operations. The proximity to the Allegheny River allowed for easy shipments between Warren and Pittsburgh. The discovery of oil in 1875 also boosted the local economy, as well as its population.
Although Jewish peddlers likely visited the region much earlier, the first Jewish settlers in Warren are thought to be George and Mary Ball, according to “History of the Warren Jewish Community,” a congregational history. George Ball was originally a merchant in Jamestown, Pa. He followed his customers to Warren, where he started the Warren Clothing Company in about 1857.
By 1886, only seven Jewish families lived in the town and most traveled to Erie or nearby Corry for religious services. George and Mary Ball’s son Dr. Michael V. Ball is credited with starting the Jewish community in Warren when he wrote a letter to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, promoting the industrial activity of the town and the need for workers. The agency sent “a dozen or more” families to the area, according to the congregational history.
These families organized a congregation and legally chartered the “First Warren Hebrew Congregation Tefaires Israel” in 1906. Over time, the congregation became known as both the Warren Hebrew Congregation and as Tiphereth Israel Congregation.
Congregants initially prayed in private homes and rented public halls for special events, including the High Holidays. According to a 1939 survey from the Works Progress Administration Church Archives, these included a hall above the Greenlund Furniture Store on Pennsylvania Avenue West, the Waters Estate on Liberty Street, and a hall above the Printz Co. Store on Second Street.
A scheduling conflict in 1917 inspired the community to seek out permanent accommodations for worship services. When a wedding party using a rented hall on the afternoon before Yom Kippur refused to vacate the premises at the agreed-upon time, Jewish congregants were forced to start their services late. “This caused great frustration and a firm resolve that next year the congregation would have its own synagogue,” according to the congregational history. The following year, Tiphereth Israel Congregation launched a fundraising campaign to acquire and remodel the soon-to-be-vacant United Brethren Church at 112 Conewango Avenue, along the Conewango Creek of the Allegheny River. Members collected $701 at a special board meeting in May 1918 and later appealed to Jewish communities in nearby towns and to their Christian neighbors in Warren to raise the remainder of the down payment.
The two-story synagogue building had a sanctuary on the first floor. Social gatherings were held on and the second floor, which was also home to the building caretaker and his family. “The builders of Solomon’s Temple didn’t have more enthusiasm for their undertaking than did this small group of Jewish immigrants,” congregant Louis Segel recalled in the community history. The July 1918 dedication of the synagogue was so important in the life of the community that the congregation used 1918 to mark major anniversaries, rather than the earlier 1906 date of its incorporation.
A second wave of Jews came to Warren in the decade after the synagogue was established. These included oilfield peddler and shopkeeper Levi Epstein, scrap dealers Robert Punsky and Eli Gordon, grocer Israel Harris and merchant Charles Sontag. The first spiritual leader of Warren Hebrew Congregation was a young scholar named Aaron Shulman, who immigrated to Scranton, Pa. from a small village near Minsk in about 1905. Shulman came to Warren after hearing about an opening for “a man able to be a teacher and a shochet [kosher butcher] and a cantor and everything,” as he described it in an oral history interview in the early 1970s.
According to his recollections, Warren was home to only 14 Jewish families at the time, with approximately 14 more scattered throughout the surrounding towns. “When I came here they said they would try to see that I make a living although, they said that they can’t give very well, since they were all poor people working for a dollar a day. They paid me $25 a month. Each family paid $1.75 a month. I was a shochet, a mohel (circumciser), a teacher, a cantor and I made the mikvah [ritual bath] for the women, too,” Shulman said in his oral history. Shulman served as rabbi until 1909 but remained in Warren and oversaw its religious school until his death in 1976.
The Jewish community of Warren never established a cemetery, and members of Warren Hebrew Congregation instead used Jewish cemeteries in nearby Bradford and Titusville, according to the Works Progress Administration survey. The largest and most lasting Jewish communal group in the city was the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the congregation, which was founded in 1920. One of the primary responsibilities of the Ladies’ Auxiliary was to raise funds for the congregation and religious education.
Warren Hebrew Congregation held its mortgage-burning ceremony for its synagogue in the late 1930s and renovated the interior of the building in 1955. The congregation hired architect Sol N. Gellman of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to modernize the sanctuary with a new aron (ark), bima (dais) and amud (lectern) and new lighting.
The Jewish population of Warren peaked in the years before World War I. The American Jewish Yearbook listed a population of 102 in its 1918-1919 edition, 65 in its 1928-1929 edition and 73 in its 1940-1941 edition. The overall population of Warren began to decline after World War II, and the decline accelerated toward the end of the 20th century. The congregation maintained a stable membership for decades but experienced declines starting in the late 1980s as families moved, as members died and as the children of congregants chose to live elsewhere. Warren Hebrew Congregation closed in 1993 and liquidated its assets. It donated one of its Torah scrolls to a campus organization at Northwestern University and most of its other fixtures and religious items to a Jewish school in University Heights, Ohio. After a three-year effort, the congregation sold its synagogue to a local church in 1996. The congregation divided the proceeds between Yeshiva University in New York and the Jewish Education Institute in Pittsburgh.