To commemorate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Johnstown Area Heritage Association (JAHA) is releasing a series of oral history interviews on Johnstown’s Jewish community. These interviews, conducted this last May in partnership with the Cambria County Library and the Beth Sholom Congregation of Johnstown, highlight unique aspects of Jewish life in Johnstown as well as the significance of this community to the area’s history. The project was directed by JAHA Curator Andrew Lang, Laryssa Duncan of the Cambria Library and Barry Rudel of Beth Sholom, and Anna Gagnon assisted with transcriptions, using her work on this project to achieve a Gold Award in Girl Scouting.
The idea to conduct interviews came during the run of the traveling exhibit “Deadly Medicine: Exploring the Master Race,” which explored the history of the Nazi’s eugenics movement against European Jews and other groups. The exhibit was presented at JAHA’s Heritage Discovery Center this last spring through the Blanche Beerman Fund at the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies.
As Lang recalls, “During the exhibit’s run, Barry Rudel came to Laryssa Duncan and myself and said he wanted to document the history of Johnstown’s local Jewish community and see how it might tie in to this larger exhibit narrative. We thought this an excellent idea and quickly got to work.”
From the beginning, the project was a collaborative effort.
“Barry arranged the interviews and helped identify those who wished to speak to us,” Lang says. “Laryssa Duncan and I came up with interview questions, and then using recording equipment from the library, all three of us went and conducted interviews. This was a truly collaborative project and highlights the great things that can happen when local organizations partner together and share resources.”
Nine different individuals were interviewed for the project, and their discussions range from the early life of Jewish immigrants in Johnstown, memories of everyday life in Johnstown, work history, and religious life.
“Johnstown’s Jewish community has wielded a great deal of influence, both locally and nationally,” says Lang. “Nearly everyone in town remembers Glosser Brothers and the impact it had in the community. The Jewish community supported a plethora of community efforts, including the local library. And, the local Jewish community was committed too to Israel. For years, Johnstown raised a higher proportion of funds for Israel than any other city in the country.”
Ultimately, it is the hope of the project’s leaders that people take away some new insights in listening to these interviews. As Lang says, “Certainly, you get a sense of struggles—anti-Semitism and prejudice. But there is also the sense of hope and resilience that has defined their experiences. Soon, it will be one year since the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh. As we near this date, we want to think that we all can continue to promote understanding, compassion, and a greater sense of our shared history. Consider these interviews a small piece of this larger process.”