Johnstown Jewish Community Photographs, c1926-1996

Rauh Jewish Archives

Summary Information

Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center
Johnstown Jewish Community Photographs
Johnstown Jewish Community
Collection Number
Date [inclusive]
1 linear foot (1 box and 1 shelf volume)
Language of Materials
The material in this collection is in English.
The Johnstown Jewish Community Photographs include publicity photographs of speakers for the Beth Zion Forum, a photo album of activities of Beth Sholom Congregation in 1986, and a scrapbook of a medical clinic in Ramla, Israel, which was funded by the Johnstown Jewish Community.
Sponsor Note
Funding for this project was made available by Simon Hafner Charitable Foundation.

Preferred Citation

Johnstown Jewish Community Photographs, ca. 1926-1996 , MSP#450, Rauh Jewish Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center

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The Records of the Johnstown Jewish Community contain information about synagogues, community organizations, and individuals in the Jewish community of Johnstown, Pennsylvania. Most of the records date from the early twentieth century through the 1970s. Jewish settlement in Johnstown, which is located in Cambria County approximately fifty-five miles east of Pittsburgh, began in the 1850s, following the development of the iron and steel industries there. The first Jews to arrive were German shopkeepers, followed by Eastern European peddlers and industrial workers.

An Orthodox congregation, Rodef Sholom, was chartered in 1899, with 30 member families. Hyman Kaminsky served as the first religious leader of this congregation. Regular religious services and Hebrew instruction were conducted in private homes, and High Holy Day services were held in rented rooms until 1904, when the congregation built its first synagogue building, known as “the Iron Street Synagogue,” where services were held until 1950. A new synagogue was built in 1950 in the suburb of Westmont. In 1952 Rodef Sholom and the Jewish Center of Johnstown, which had provided educational and recreational services, merged.

The decade of the1920s was a time of transition for Rodef Sholom: the English language was introduced in services, girls were included in Sunday religious classes, and women became more involved in congregational life. By 1931, Rodef Sholom had become loosely affiliated with the Conservative movement. Rabbi Ralph Simon (1931-1936) was the first American-born and the first Conservative rabbi to serve Rodef Sholom. An English-language Bulletin was among the innovations he introduced. Both Orthodox and Conservative rabbis succeeded Rabbi Simon through the 1930s and 1940s. Some level of tension between Orthodox and Conservative affiliation and practices continued on through the years, until the establishment of the new building for the synagogue and Jewish Center in Westmont. By that time, the Conservative element dominated the congregation.

The Orthodox minority of Rodef Sholom withdrew to form Ahavath Achim Congregation, composed primarily of Hungarian, Polish, and Lithuanian immigrants, many of whom worked as peddlers. Its Cedar Street synagogue building in the Hornerstown district served the congregation from 1921 to 1973, when the congregation was dissolved. The building was torn down in 1996.

Reform Jews organized Beth Zion Temple in 1894; it was chartered in 1920 with 50 families and no building. Isadore Reichert was the first rabbi to serve this congregation, beginning in 1903. Beth Zion’s Reform practice also expressed elements of Conservatism and Orthodoxy, including traditional bar mitzvah and extensive use of Hebrew in services. Its first permanent location was the former Nathan family home on Vine Street, where services were held from 1924 to 1950. Hulda Nathan Elsasser, the second president of Beth Zion (1929-1934), was one of the first women elected president of an American Jewish congregation.

Beth Zion sponsored the very successful Beth Zion Forum (1926-1950), founded by Harry Bandell and continued by Rabbi H. Goren Perelmuter. This community lecture series brought nationally and internationally known speakers to Johnstown. Rabbi Perelmuter served Beth Zion from 1941 to 1957, supervising the transition to its new building in Westmont in 1951. Leonard Winograd was installed as rabbi in 1962 and Sion A. David in 1970.

Between 1905 and 1951, five synagogues were built in the greater Johnstown community. As a steel-producing community, Johnstown experienced an economic boom during and after World War II, and the Jewish community also grew, to approximately 2,000 people. The general demographic shift toward suburbanization also occurred in the Jewish community, and both Rodef Sholom and Beth Zion moved to locations near each other in Westmont in the early 1950s. Soon, however, an economic downturn caused a concomitant decrease in the Jewish population.

As the Jewish community became geographically dispersed and then declined in numbers, the congregations merged and dissolved, eventually leaving one remaining congregation. Beth Zion and Rodef Sholom joined their Sunday schools in 1972, and four years later the Beth Sholom Congregation was formed by the full merger of Rodef Sholom and Beth Zion. Rav A. Soloff became the rabbi of the united congregation. Currently, nearly all of Johnstown’s Jews are members of the merged congregation, which practices a mixture of Reform and Conservative Judaism and keeps a kosher kitchen out of respect for members who observe dietary laws..

Jewish philanthropy and social service work followed the development of the Jewish community in Johnstown and increased with the prosperity of its members. Secular Jewish organizations tended to arise from and overlap with the activities of the different synagogues. A range of organizations, including local chapters of national organizations (such as Hadassah, the National Council of Jewish Women, B’nai B’rith, etc.), flourished at various times and with varying degrees of coordination by the Johnstown Jewish Community Council and the more recent United Jewish Federation, which replaced the Council in 1975. Members of the Jewish community participated actively in the ’77 Flood Relief Center, organized locally after the devastating 1977 flood, the second major flood in Johnstown’s history. During the 1970s, volunteers kept extensive scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about members of the Johnstown Jewish community

The prominent Glosser family, of Russian descent, founded the Glosser Brothers Department Store in 1907, later operated the chain of Gee Bee stores, and took an active part in Jewish Community organizations. Solomon and David Glosser, Joseph Goldstein, Sam Rapoport, and Leonard Olbum held leadership positions during the time of the merger of Rodef Sholom and Beth Zion. Glosser Brothers was one of the largest employers of both Jews and non-Jews in Johnstown; some of the store’s employment records from the 1920s and 1930s are included in this collection. The store’s closing in 1991 reflected the continued economic decline of the region.

Ewa Morawska, a sociologist and historian who was affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh, chose Johnstown as the location for her research on the adaptation of Eastern European immigrants to life in an American small town in the years from 1890 to 1940. She has published two books as a result of this research, which she began in 1980. For Bread with Butter: Life-Worlds of East Central Europeans in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, 1890-1940 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) and  Insecure Prosperity: Small-Town Jews in Industrial America, 1890-1940 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996) are both available in the Heinz History Center Library. Some of her research materials for the second book are included in this collection. Insecure Prosperity provides a thorough and detailed study of many aspects of the Johnstown Jewish community, incorporating both documentary and oral history materials.

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Scope and Content Notes

The Johnstown Jewish Community Photographs are housed in one archival box and one shelf volume and are arranged roughly according the organizational scheme of the Johnstown Jewish Community Papers. They include publicity photographs of speakers for the Beth Zion Forum; the cornerstone laying of the Beth Zion Westmont Temple; rabbis (photocopies from an exhibit); a photo album of activities of Beth Sholom Congregation in 1986; a scrapbook of a medical clinic in Ramla, Israel, which was funded by the Johnstown Jewish Community; and prints and negatives used by Ewa Morawska in her book Insecure Prosperity: Small-Town Jews in Industrial America, 1890-1940; as well as folders of unidentified locations and people. Also included are photographs of the exterior and cornerstone of Ahavath Achim Congregation before it was demolished in 1996.

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Administrative Information

Publication Information

Rauh Jewish Archives Senator John Heinz History Center, April 2008

Senator John Heinz History Center
1212 Smallman Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15222

Restrictions on Access

No Restrictions.

Restrictions on Use

Property rights reside with the Senator John Heinz History Center. Literary rights are retained by the creators of the records and their heirs. For permission to reproduce or publish, please contact the Library and Archives of the Senator John Heinz History Center.

Acquisition Information

These materials came in one accession on December 19, 2005. Additional accession added on August 2, 2012.

Acc#2005.0308 Gift of Lawrence Rosenberg, President of Beth Sholom Congregation

Acc#1997.0239 Gift of Fran Berkman

Processing Information

May 1, 2007; collection arranged and inventory written by Martha L. Berg, with generous support from the Simon Hafner Charitable Foundation.

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Related Materials

Separated Materials

See finding aid for MSS #450.

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Collection Inventory

Ahavath Achim Congregation 1996 11

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Section: Beth Zion Congregation 

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Beth Zion Forum Speakers ca. 1926-1950 2

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Laying of cornerstone, Westmont Temple 1950 3

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General 1951, 1959, n.d. 4

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Rabbis n.d. 5

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Beth Sholom congregational activities 1986 6

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Section: Ewa Morawska 

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Prints n.d 7

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Negatives n.d 8

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Section: Unidentified photographs 

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Locations n.d 9

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People n.d 10

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