Unlike Jewish communities in towns closer to Pittsburgh, Jewish communities in Mercer County have associated as much with northeastern Ohio as with southwestern Pennsylvania.
The first Jews to permanently settle in Mercer County were merchants. Mark Cohen immigrated to the United States from London about 1859 and lived in Wilmington, Delaware, and in Philadelphia, Pa., before crossing the state in 1867 to Sharon, where he started a clothing business. Jacob Traxler was a Hungarian solider in the Austrian Army who immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio, before moving to Sharon in 1868, also to sell clothes. Bert Printz immigrated to Youngstown, Ohio, from Hungary in 1859 and moved to Sharon in 1878, first working as a clerk before opened a clothing business in 1886.
Cohen, Traxler, Printz and some of the other early immigrants to Sharon were affiliated with Rodef Shalom Temple, a Reform congregation in nearby Youngstown. Meanwhile, a small group of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania began meeting in Sharon. Their unofficial leader was Aaron Cohen, who had come to the city in 1870 and started a boarding house downtown. Using his accommodations and business connections, he helped many younger immigrants get started as peddlers and led private services.
In 1888, this group founded an Orthodox congregation called House of Israel. They initially rented the second floor of a home at 62 Shenango Street from a local widow. The congregants undertook major renovations on their own, including breaking out a wall to make a sanctuary, adding a new entrance and building pews by hand. By 1903, they had outgrown their accommodations and built the first synagogue in Mercer County, a two-story brick building at the corner of Shenango Street and Yazvac Place. Rabbi Aaron Mordechai Ashinsky of Pittsburgh was one of the guests of honor at the dedication ceremonies. With the arrival of a Westinghouse Electric Corporation plant in the area in 1922, Sharon and its Jewish community both grew. In 1923, House of Israel built a $30,000 addition on the back of its synagogue to accommodate its expanding membership.
The creation of the company town of South Sharon (later renamed Farrell, after U.S. Steel Company President James Farrell) brought even more people to the area. Among them was a group of Hungarian Jews, including the family of Jacob and Rosa Gross. In 1902, this group formed an Orthodox congregation called B’nai Zion. They worshipped at a wood-frame building on Greenfield Avenue (now Market Avenue) until 1918, when they built a brick synagogue at the corner of Spearman Avenue and Union Street.
By 1919, approximately 1,050 Jews were living in Sharon and Farrell, according to the American Jewish Yearbook. Both communities were large enough to support breakaway congregations. In Farrell, a group of Russian and Rumanian immigrants chartered an Orthodox congregation called Ahavas Achim in 1916. The congregation rejoined B’nai Zion either in 1928 and 1930, according to various sources. In Sharon, a faction associated with the Conservative movement formed Shaare Torah Congregation, which later rejoined House of Israel. The twin towns also attracted members from nearby Sharpsville and Greenville, whose Jewish ranks were too small to support congregations.
In addition to forming congregations, the two communities founded several Jewish organizations between 1900 and 1930. These included four women’s groups. House of Israel Ladies Aid Organization helped immigrants settle in the area. The House of Israel Sisterhood raised funds to pay down congregational debts. Hadassah chapters in Sharon and Farrell supported causes in Palestine. The joint Sharon/Farrell section of the National Council of Jewish Women performed social welfare work, often in partnership with other civic groups in the county. The Jewish community also formed the Shenango Young Men’s Hebrew Association, and the congregations jointly established a cemetery.
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Even though the twin communities had the largest Jewish population between Pittsburgh and Erie, neither congregation had a full-time rabbi for many years. The first spiritual leader of House of Israel was Rev. J.M. Rabinovitz, who was a full-time cantor, Hebrew teacher, shochet (kosher butcher) and mohel (ritual circumciser).
Rabinovitz encouraged the formation of the Ladies’ Aid Organization, which was the first Jewish organization in the county. Its early charitable efforts included emergency aid during the 1913 flood and a Liberty Loan Drive and other civic projects during World War I. In addition to its charitable efforts, the group organized popular picnics at a farm in nearby Orangeville, Ohio, which was nicknamed “The Montefiore Country Club.”
For many years, Rabinovitz handled these responsibilities alone. With the growth in membership in the 1920s, the congregation employed out-of-town m’lamdim (teachers) for the religious school and baalei t’filoh (prayer leaders) for High Holiday services.
At the same time, a subset of the Jewish population of Sharon wanted the congregation to modernize. These were largely families of German origin, who were accustomed to more liberal religious practices. Through B’nai B’rith, they organized an English-speaking Sunday school. The school was co-educational, unlike the traditional cheder, which was only for boys. In 1924, it merged into the existing congregational religious school.
When House of Israel hired its first rabbi, Rabbi Maurice Moskovitz, in 1929, the congregation accommodated these families by adding a late Friday evening service, English prayers, a sermon and mixed seating for men and women. Over the next decade, during several rabbinic tenures, the congregation moved closer to Conservative Judaism, first in practice and later through membership in the United Synagogue of America.
Aiming to increase participation by making synagogue facilities more inviting, the Rosenblum and Epstein families created a trust in 1943 that would make an initial $25,000 donation to a building fund if the congregation started construction of a new synagogue within five years. The patriarch of these families, Nathan Rosenblum, was a tinware dealer who had started Golden Dawn, a wholesale grocery company that evolved into a successful retail chain throughout Western Pennsylvania. In the interim, the families purchased a house at a sheriff’s sale to use as a Jewish Community Center.
The fundraising campaign accelerated changes in ritual. In 1945, House of Israel formally adopted a program of “Progressive Judaism,” using a term more common among European congregations to denote modernization than the American term “Reform Judaism.”
With the change, the congregation was able to solicit leadership from the Jewish Institute of Religion in New York and hired Rabbi M. Robert Syme in 1945. Under Syme, the congregation organized a mixed choir, installed an organ and began using the Union Prayer Book of the Reform movement for Friday evening services. Under Rabbi Meyer M. Abramowitz, who led the congregation from 1948 until 1956, the congregation changed its name to Temple Beth Israel, adopted the Union Prayer Book for most services, and formally joined the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. These changes were generally popular, although a contingent within the membership protested.
In 1949, Temple Beth Israel laid the cornerstone of a new synagogue at the corner of Highland Road and Euclid Avenue. Whereas Rabbi Aaron Mordechai Ashinsky, a leading Orthodox rabbi, had attended the dedication of the first synagogue, this time the honor went to Rabbi Solomon B. Freehof of Rodef Shalom Congregation, one of the largest Reform congregations. Temple Beth Israel inaugurated its synagogue on Rosh Hashanah of 1950. In the typical fashion of post-war religious facilities, the synagogue doubled as a community center, with a large social hall beneath the main sanctuary.
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At the time of the dedication of the synagogue, in 1950, Temple Beth Israel had 168 members. During the early 1960s, membership peaked at approximately 218 members.
While Temple Beth Israel was growing, Congregation B’nai Zion was shrinking. The two congregations merged their religious schools in 1967 and combined their entire congregations in 1972. Following the merger, Congregation B’nai Zion held a separate traditional service in the social hall on certain occasions, particularly the High Holidays.
Although membership was stable for years, Temple Beth Israel struggled to attract new members, particularly after the closure of the Westinghouse plant in 1985. That year, the congregation had 178 members, with 28 living in other cities. By 1988, membership had fallen to 155, with 21 living in other cities. A centennial celebration in the summer of 1989 brought 377 current and former members to the synagogue, including Rabbi Samuel Stahl, who had grown up in the congregation. With no signs of growth evident, Temple Beth Israel merged with Congregation Rodef Sholom of Youngstown in 2013.
This exhibit was made possible through the generous support of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation.