Back to History of Temple B'nai Israel

The Tree of Life Congregation was chartered January 4, 1898. There were twelve members in its fold at its inception: Messrs. Isaac Sunstein, Louis Raden, Abe Brown, Solomon Grinberg, Solomon London, Abraham Kaplan, Abraham Escovitz, Barnard Adier, D. Kaplan, Harry Fisher, Abraham W. Abel, B. Melet and Benjamin Whezy.

These men immediately set to work to build a synagogue where they could meet and worship according to the Orthodox Jewish faith. Within two years the necessary arrangements had been made, and on June 17, 1900 ground was broken for the erection of the synagogue at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Mulberry Street.

The building committee consisted of Messrs. Louis Raden, Abraham Kaplan, N. Levy, J.M. Pollock, A. Goldberg, D. Kaplan, and M.L. Supransky. In September, 1900, the new house of worship was dedicated!

Some of the presidents who served were Messrs. Louis Raden, Abraham Kaplan, D. Kaplan, N. Levy, J. Gelman and Abe Brown. Rabbi Wolf Levine was the spiritual leader from 1910 to 1920. Sadly enough, within the next several years, its members dispersed joining up with other synagogues, until the building was finally sold.

Meanwhile, at approximately the same time - in 1897 - another new congregation was being organized by Messrs. M. Book, Samuel Kalchstein, C.H. Burnstein, David Krell and David Schrage. They named their new synagogue the Sfard Anshe Galicia of McKeesport. Before the year ended, the entire membership amounted to ten.

For years the members of the Congregation worshipped in a private room and in other places, such as halls and auditoriums. But soon they owned one of the finest Orthodox Synagogues in Western Pennsylvania. The building was erected in 1908 through the efforts of dedicated members, such as the Messrs. A.M. Amper, M. Book, Samuel Kalchstein and Meyer Buck.

The edifice was built of buff brick with stone trimmings. The interior was finished in hardwood and oak. An artist from Germany painted beautiful designs in oil. The building had a gallery. It stood on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Mulberry Street.

This sacred house of God was dedicated on Sunday afternoon, September 13, 1908. Miss Jennie Kalchstein unlocked the doors of the synagogue with a golden key, which was presented to her by the members of the Congregation.

Following the opening of the doors, a prayer was offered by the Rev. A.M. Ashinsky of Pittsburgh. The Honorable W.H. Cole-man, Mayor of McKeesport, addressed those assembled for this occasion.

The first spiritual leader of the Congregation was Rabbi Wolfish, who served from 1909 until his death in the mid 40's. Rabbi Jacob Friedman was the Hebrew teacher in 1921 and 1922, and conducted High Holiday Services, prior to becoming the Rabbi of Clairton. Rabbi Friedman served as the Recording Secretary of the Congregation until his death in 1940. He kept the minutes in Yiddish, written in Hebrew script! During this period, Mr. Isadore Rack served as Treasurer for several years.

It is interesting to note, that within 10 to 12 years after the birth of the Tree of Life and Sfard Anshe Galicia Congregations, another Congregation was coming into existence. The Kesher Israel was founded in 1910 by Mr. J.L. Diamond and Mr. Leib Kessler. This synagogue was located nearby on Mulberry Street.

In June, 1935, the Kesher Israel Congregation decided to join together with the Anshe Sfard. Mr. Philip Kessler was the first president of this union, now referred to as the Sfard Congregation. Other members to follow, in years to come, who would be presidents, were the Messrs. I.M. Gold, Myer Taksel, Max Lieb, J. Weiss, J.L. Diamond, Jacob Guttman, Sam Rosenzweig, Abe Abrams, Larry Kupfer, Harry Markowitz, Isadore Joshowitz, Dave Weinberg, and Dave Bleiberg. Over the years. Rabbi Lefkowitz and Rabbi Popach served. A few years later one of the most loved and memorable Rabbis ever to serve this community became the spiritual leader of the Sfard Congregation - Rabbi Jacob Sax, who served from 1952 until his death in 1972.

Meanwhile, in 1948, a number of men who resided in the vicinity of the Mc-Keesport Carnegie Library desired to observe the Sabbath, and yet wanted to avoid the long walk to Third and Market Street where they had been attending services at the Congregation Gemilas Chesed. They decided to meet in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Herskovitz, who lived on the corner of Coursin Street and Beaver Avenue. Here they held their daily minyans.

For Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, they rented a room downstairs in the Carnegie Library to accommodate their families. For a period of time, services were also held in a house on the corner of Cornell and Library Streets. This house was obtained through the persistent efforts of Mr. Benjamin Olender. When this house was no longer useable, Mr. David Coslov bought the property, dismantled it, and built his own residence on the site. Mr. Coslov was especially instrumental in acquiring the charter of the old Tree of Life, which was assumed by the interested parties.

Some of the members who were active in the formation of this new group were Messrs. Samuel Ackerman, Max Berkovitz, William Berkovitz, David Coslov, Abe Finkel, Aaron Guttman, Charles Gross, Nathan Hersh, Joseph Herskovitz, Henry B. Klein, Isador Klein, Aaron Markovitz, William Moldovan, Sam Moldovan, Benjamin Olender, Samuel Sabin, Harry Schulhof, David Shermer, Max Spiegel, Sigmund Spiegel and Andrew Spitz.

In 1950, with Mr. Benjamin Olender as the purchaser for the group, the Stuckslager home was acquired and remodeled. This was the building on the corner of Bailie Avenue and Coursin Street. For many hours, days, and weeks the loyal founders watched each brick being put into place - proudly watching the "new" Tree of Life Building being born again.

As membership grew in the revitalized Tree of Life, a number of ordained Rabbis served the Congregation: Rabbis Louis Nulman, Jack Segal, Edmund Neiss, Marvin Goldman, Milton Turner and Philip Lefkowitz. Rabbi Alex Kaminetsky served as interim spiritual leader when he was needed. The men serving as presidents were Messrs. Alvin Ackerman, Dr. Louis Ives, Alvin Klein, Burton Klein, Donald Moritz, Samuel Sabin, David S. Shermer, Jerome Simon, Stuart Spitz, Albert Wein and Harold Wintner.

In 1973, the Sfard and Tree of Life Congregations joined to form the Tree of Life • Sfard Congregation. The Presidents of the new merger were Gerald Spiegel and Sam Weinreb and the current president Marvin Berk.

Soon the two congregations decided it was time to unite under one roof. A lot was purchased in White Oak Borough. The Tree of Life building was sold to the McKeesport Little Theatre and the McKeesport Redevelopment bought the Sfard building on Seventh Avenue.

The beautiful new building was constructed in White Oak at 2025 Cypress Drive. The congregation held the first services in the new building in August, 1975.