Sometimes we like to post about Jewish heritage developments elsewhere that resonate with Jewish heritage issues in Europe. And here is another post along these lines….an article by Tammy Hepps in the Jewish Chronicle of Pittsburgh, PA about a guided tour to former synagogues in Pennsylvania….
There are many Jewish heritage itineraries and tours in Europe that focus on synagogue buildings and Jewish cemeteries in places where Jews no longer live. Many of the synagogues have been converted for other use — ranging from museums and cultural spaces to churches; some are still standing empty, or as ruins. You can find information on many of these places and itineraries on this web site.
Some notable examples are the 10 Stars Network (and dozens of other restored synagogues) in the Czech Republic; the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route; the Chassidic Route in Poland, the Network of Spanish Jewish Quarters, etc….these and other Jewish itineraries are also linked under the AEPJ’s European Routes of Jewish Heritage.
In much of Europe, the abandonment of these buildings was due to the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust and/or the suppression of Jewish life and religious practice under communism (or, indeed, the expulsion of Jews from Iberia half a millennium ago…).
In Pennsylvania — and elsewhere in the United States — the abandonment of synagogues has come about not by outside destruction, but by what can be called normal demographic changes, including population shifts as congregants leave old neighborhoods and move on to new places. (This also, or course, happens in Europe, as we have reported recently from Cork, Ireland.)
Still, as Hepps describes in her article, “Jewish Communities Fight the Odds, Keep Their Roots Alive,” the itineraries can be dramatic testimony to the past.
Once there were hundreds of thriving small-town Jewish communities across the country. Now even the last survivors are vanishing. On Sunday, a New Light Congregation Men’s Club-sponsored bus tour of striving and shuttered synagogues in the Ohio and Beaver Valleys […] traced the significant consolidation Jewish life has been undergoing in Southwestern Pennsylvania for the past half-century.
Susan Melnick, previously of the Small Town Jewish History Project at the Rauh Jewish Archives, was the first of many local heritage experts and community members to address the 55-member tour group. After summarizing how these communities grew from the tireless efforts of immigrant peddlers-turned-merchants and later faded in the face of the region’s larger demographic pressures, she concluded, “It’s heartbreaking, but we can celebrate what they accomplished.”