The End of the Jewish Community of New Castle, Pennsylvania

Jan. 11 2019

Since at least the Middle Ages, Jews have mourned congregations that were slaughtered by their neighbors or expelled from their homes by hostile rulers. But, last November, a different kind of mourning took place as several Jews gathered for the unveiling of a headstone where the remaining ritual items of the last synagogue in the Pennsylvania town of New Castle were buried in accordance with Jewish custom. Alanna Cooper writes:

Jews settled [in New Castle] at the turn of the last century along with a wave of other European immigrants who arrived in western Pennsylvania, drawn by a booming economy. The Jews who came to this part of the state mostly concentrated in Pittsburgh, where some 13,000 settled by 1900; the city’s Jewish population peaked at 55,000 in 1930. Others made their homes in the small towns that radiated out from this urban center.

At their height in the 1950s and 60s, more than 40 small towns—spreading east to the Allegheny Mountains, and west to the Pennsylvania-Ohio border—were home to thriving Jewish communities. Some, like New Castle, grew large enough to support two synagogues, Temple Israel (Reform) and Hadar Israel (traditional). Then, with deindustrialization, came economic decline. Grown children left their hometowns and did not return, leaving aging and dwindling populations behind. New Castle’s Jews responded by merging their two congregations into one. . . . By 2017, [however] the congregation’s members agreed that there were simply not enough of them to continue functioning.

Today fewer than ten small-town synagogues remain open in western Pennsylvania’s rust belt. With so many shutting their doors, Temple Hadar Israel is not alone in facing a glut of sacred items, which the community is scrambling to pass on to others who might carry on the communal legacies. Temple Hadar Israel sold its building in 2015; . . . the congregation divested itself of its movable property, including its eight remaining Torah scrolls. . . . Three went to summer camps, one to a Reform temple in South Carolina, one to a Progressive congregation in Warsaw, one to a Houston synagogue that suffered damage in Hurricane Harvey, and one to a tiny community in Indonesia.

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More about: American Jewry, History & Ideas, Jewish cemeteries, Synagogues

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East