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Temple members may face exodus

By Andrew Conte
Friday, December 23, 2005

Sitting at center ice of the Penguins’ proposed new arena, Downtown’s only synagogue shouldn’t have to move for hockey again, Rabbi Stanley Savage says.
Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob congregation has worshipped at the aqua-green building on Colwell Street since 1963, after the city’s Urban Redevelopment Authority demolished a Washington Place synagogue for the Civic Arena project.

It would be a sin if the city’s oldest Orthodox congregation had to relocate for another arena project, said Savage, who has lived in the temple’s first-floor apartment for 21 years.

The synagogue sits halfway between Centre Avenue and Fifth Avenue, where the Penguins want to place a new arena. A casino likely would be built, at least temporarily, in the Mellon Arena parking lots.

“I don’t want to leave here,” Savage said. “I love this place. I love this congregation. I don’t want them to give this place to a casino.”

Whether that would happen isn’t certain, but the synagogue and several other properties might need to relocate under a $1 billion redevelopment of the Lower Hill District announced Wednesday by the Penguins. The team would partner with Isle of Capri Casinos of Biloxi, Miss., and Nationwide Realty Investors of Columbus, Ohio.

If Isle of Capri can win the city’s casino license, the company would give $290 million for a new arena. But to make room for it and other amenities in the plan, the city-county Sports & Exhibition Authority — which owns Mellon Arena — might need to obtain a row of privately held properties along Fifth Avenue.

The site includes the synagogue, law offices, a barbecue restaurant, a clothing store, and a few vacant buildings among the surface parking lots.

The synagogue is a “small gem,” said Nick Lane, an amateur Pittsburgh Jewish historian who leads bus tours around the city. It’s the last of more than 20 synagogues once located throughout the Hill District.

Organized in 1873, Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob is the city’s oldest Orthodox congregation — but it’s also somewhat of an anomaly. Few Jews remain in the Hill District, and most of the 75 members drive to the synagogue on the Sabbath, in violation of Orthodox rules. The synagogue locks its parking lot on the Sabbath; members park on surrounding streets.

Mellon Arena — then the Civic Arena — was the “nail in the coffin” for the Hill District’s Jewish community, Lane said. Although the congregation has moved more than once, he wonders whether it could withstand another move.

“It is, in a funny kind of way, reiterating the mistake made when the Civic Arena went in,” he said. “You demolish something of value and replace it with something that has a much shorter lifespan of its own. Look at the Civic Arena and all the things destroyed to make it happen.”

It would be up to the SEA to obtain the land for the arena and to decide whether to use eminent domain, said David Morehouse, the Penguins’ senior consultant. The arena could be moved to another site on land that the SEA already owns, he said, or the agency could develop land around the synagogue.

“But that would significantly impact the overall development,” Morehouse said.

SEA officials could not be reached for comment.

Separately, the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation determined yesterday that the 44-year-old Mellon Arena is six years too young to qualify for federal, state or city historic designation, said Al Tannler, a research historian.

The Penguins’ proposal also could include buying a former school building and other property around Epiphany Church, Uptown.

“The Pittsburgh Penguins have not talked to the diocese for a few years now,” said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. “We would want to sit down and just talk.”

Not everyone on the Fifth Avenue blocks — and not everyone in the Jewish congregation — opposes the arena project.

Julian Elbling’s family has run a men’s clothing store on Fifth Avenue since 1927. He’s a member of Beth Hamedrash Hagodol-Beth Jacob congregation. For the right price and a new location nearby, Elbling said, he would move his store.

The synagogue needs to be as willing, he said.

“They have to be flexible and look to the future of the neighborhood here,” Elbling said. “They moved twice before.”

The president of the congregation, Ira Frank, who owns the National Fabrics shop across Fifth Avenue, said he doesn’t want the synagogue to move but would listen to the Penguins’ offer.

The team met with him about three years ago when it first proposed building a new arena on the block. Frank said they have not been in contact or made an offer since.

It would be the congregation’s decision whether to relocate.

“The bottom line is, we’re here, we’re very viable and we plan on existing,” Frank said. “It’s all speculation. Are we willing to listen to them and talk? Absolutely. Are we happy about it? No.”

Savage said he wants to stay. The rabbi sees beauty in the building’s mix of the past and present. Despite its contemporary architecture and stained-glass windows, the synagogue’s ark came from Europe and dates to 1894. Its wooden pews were saved from the Washington Place synagogue.

“How do they want to get rid of this?” Savage said, standing in the main sanctuary. “It’s so beautiful.”

Andrew Conte can be reached at or (412) 320-7835

Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation

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Pittsburgh, PA 15219

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