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Congregation B'nai Israel Photographs, c1920-1996, MSP#470
Rauh Jewish Archives, Senator John Heinz History Center

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The Congregation B'nai Israel Photographs contain 97 images dating from c.1920 to 1996. Many of the images are of confirmation classes, Hebrew school classes, and bar and bat mitzvah students. Other images are of B'nai Israel's religious leaders, congregation events, and the exterior and interior of the synagogue. Nine images from a set of photographs commissioned by the congregation to document the synagogue at the time of its closing are included.

What's in the entire collection

The Congregation B'nai Israel Photograph Collection (c.1920-1996), held by the Rauh Jewish Archives at the Senator John Heinz History Center.s Detre Library and Archives, comprises 2.0 linear feet of photographs. Many of the photographs are of confirmation classes, Hebrew school classes, bar and bat mitzvah students, choir members, Sunday school students, and of Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups. Other photographs depict the synagogue's interior and exterior, and sanctuary and social halls in the synagogue and in the community building. There are photographs of events such as congregation anniversaries, a PT boat launch, and the groundbreaking for the new community building, as well.

About Congregation B'nai Israel

When Jews moved into the neighborhoods of Highland Park and East Liberty in the East End area of Pittsburgh, groups began holding religious services in homes. In 1911, one such group was chartered as B'nai Israel Congregation.

As membership increased, the congregation moved into various rented facilities. In 1920, the congregation moved into a mansion on Highland Avenue, which held the offices, library, classrooms and meeting rooms. Sabbath services were held in a building on Collins Avenue, and larger events, such as High Holiday services and weddings, were held in the Pershing Theatre or in the Rittenhouse Ballroom on Highland Avenue. Throughout this early period, members of the congregation raised funds to acquire a permanent building.

In 1920, the congregation purchased land with two existing structures at 327 North Negley Avenue. Ground was broken for the construction of the sanctuary, in 1922. The building was designed by Henry Hornbostel, Alexander Sharove, and Philip Friedman in a Byzantine style. Prior to construction, the congregation used the two existing buildings on this land as gathering places and offices. A building, called "the barn," was used as a social hall; and a building behind the main sanctuary, referred to as "the mansion," housed a chapel, offices and classrooms. Although the construction was not yet complete, the sanctuary was first used for High Holiday services in 1924.

Initially, members followed Orthodox customs. Rabbi Benjamin Lichter was hired as the congregation's rabbi in 1920. Under his leadership the congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement. In 1922, the congregation joined the United Synagogues of America. Preferring to follow Orthodox traditions, some members withdrew from B'nai Israel and established Adath Jeshurun Congregation in the same neighborhood.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the congregation was affected by the scarcity of resources caused by the Great Depression and World War II. After the war ended, the neighborhoods in the East End area of Pittsburgh experienced a population boom. The resulting increase in membership enabled the congregation to build an attached community center, which was dedicated in 1953. The new center housed classrooms, a chapel, offices and a new social hall.

The congregation's growth in membership peaked in the early 1950s. By the 1970s growth in membership had all but ceased. After the installation of stained glass windows designed by Jean Jacques Duval, in 1964, the congregation did not undertake any large construction or improvement projects.

In the 1990s, the opportunity arose to merge with another congregation, Beth Jacob of New Kensington, Pennsylvania, to found Adat Shalom Congregation in Fox Chapel, Pennsylvania. On the weekend of June 30, 1995, the B'nai Israel congregation held a formal closing ceremony at the synagogue.

Five rabbis had served the congregation: Rabbi Benjamin Lichter, Rabbi Seymour Cohen, Rabbi Mordecai Chertoff, Rabbi Jack Shechter, and Rabbi Richard Marcovitz. Rabbi Lichter was hired as head rabbi in 1920, and, in 1956, he was elected to the position of Rabbi Emeritus, which he held until his sudden death in 1963. In 1956, Rabbi Cohen was installed as head rabbi, a position he held until 1961. Rabbi Chertoff replaced Rabbi Cohen and remained with the congregation until 1966. Rabbi Shechter was installed in 1967 and remained with the congregation until 1976. Rabbi Marcovitz was hired by the congregation in 1976 and remained until 1996.

Two cantors served the congregation: Julius Bloom and Mordecai Heiser. Hazan Bloom was hired by the congregation in 1924 and served until his death in 1942. Cantor Heiser was hired in 1942 and served until his death in 1989. Cantor Mordecai Haalman also served the congregation between 1961, when he was hired, and the 1980s.

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