Saturday, January 15, 2011

Jewish Temple of Beth Sholom

The Temple of Beth Sholom congregation was a result of a merger between the Rodef Sholom and Beth Zion congregations in 1976. The building itself was constructed in the 1940s, being completed in 1951, on 700 Indiana Street in the Westmont borough of Johnstown. Built in a modern yet non-specific style, the Temple is constructed of brick and stone.

Between 1905 and 1951, five synagogues were built in Johnstown to serve the Jewish community. The first three reside in the city of Johnstown while the other two were constructed in suburban Westmont. Before the influx of Russian Jewish immigrants in the 1880s Johnstown had had a small Jewish community. The years 1889 and 1920 saw the chartering of three Jewish congregations—Rodef Sholom, Beth Zion, and Ahavath Achim—all without synagogue buildings. But, in 1906 the first Jewish services were held in the newly built synagogue of Rodef Sholom. Until that time, services were held and Hebrew taught in Jewish homes throughout the community.

The inconvenience of the distant downtown synagogues motivated the Jews living in the Westmont and Southmont boroughs to construct synagogues within the area. During the 1940s, the congregations of Beth Zion and Rodef Sholom planned for new buildings. Alexander Sharove, a well-known Pittsburgh architect, was contracted to design both buildings. The Beth Zion Congregation had its synagogue built on 700 Indiana Street on a nice plot of land which later became the site of the Beth Sholom Temple.

In 1976, Rodef Sholom and Beth Zion merged congregations and became Beth Sholom—a mixture of the two names. Not being able to afford to maintain two buildings, they sold the site of Rodef Sholom to the Ferndale School district, which was converted into a much needed elementary school. Beth Sholom is now the sole Jewish temple in the Johnstown area.

Because of the merger between the Reform Beth Zion and Conservative Rodef Sholom congregations, a compromise had to be made. On Friday nights, a more Reform service with an organist and mostly English liturgy is held while Saturday morning sees a Conservative service with no organist and mostly Hebrew liturgy.

The exterior of the building consists of two perpendicular rectangular structures of brick and stone. A menorah decorates the front of the building; while stained glass windows that depict Jewish holidays, designed by A. Raymond Katz, decorate the perimeter of the sanctuary.

Inside the sanctuary, one can see the decorative stained glass as well as plaques which memorialize past congregants. In the center of the bimah, or pulpit, stands the Holy Arch which holds six Torah from the previous two Temples. Above the bimah hangs the eternal light, symbolizing the light of God, while a representation of the Ten Commandments proudly displays the Law.

Across the hallway from the sanctuary, the rich heritage of the local Jewish community is displayed in an extensive archive display which contains a restored nineteenth century Torah scroll that was rescued from the 1936 Johnstown flood. An adjacent social hall is decorated with a mural from the original building that depicts Moses wandering in the desert. The rest of the interior is painted with Old Testament stories by the Sunday school children.

Name: Temple of Beth Sholom
Location: 700 Indiana St., Westmont, PA
Religious Affiliation: Jewish
Date of Construction: 1951
Architect: Alexander Sharove (Pittsburgh, PA)
Building Style: Modern
Plan Type: open hall
Primary Materials: Brick, stone
Status: Active

Beth Sholom Congregation website
Personal interview with Rabbi Irvin Brandwein, Temple Beth Sholom, November 4, 2010.
Arlene Johns and Angie Berzonski, ed., Domes and Spires (State College: Jostens Printing and Publishing, 2008)

researched by Maxwell Hancsak

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