May is Jewish American History Month! Did you know that Titusville was home to many Jewish people who either immigrated to America or moved from other towns to try their luck during the oil boom? This month, we’ve decided to highlight Titusville’s interesting Jewish history through the B’nai Zion and B’nai Gemiluth Chesed Congregations.
After Edwin Drake struck oil in 1859, people from all walks of life were attracted to the Oil Region and the population surged. Jewish residents from Pittsburgh, New York, and abroad flocked to Titusville and the surrounding region. In November 1863, local Jewish people, many of whom were German, created the Titusville Hebrew Congregation which was incorporated in December 1869 as B’nai Zion.
In August of 1863, land was purchased for a cemetery on Cherrytree Hill which over time would come to be the final resting place for people of Jewish faith from all over the Oil Region.
The B’nai Zion Congreation worshipped in various halls around Titusville until they erected a synagogue on Franklin Street in 1872. At that time, they had twenty-four members. At the cornerstone laying ceremony, one speaker described the congregation the following way:
“Our ideas are progressive, and I have no hesitation in saying, that when carried out will redound to the credit of ourselves as a Jewish congregation. In this bright land of liberty there is no sectarianism to observe, no ceremonies which anyone is compelled to observe. Everyone has that priceless boon transmitted to them by the glorious Constitution of the United States, namely, freedom to worship God. We respect the religious views of others, and as confidently rely upon a similar courtesy.”
By 1885, the B’nai Zion Congregation was down to only thirteen members. They were still moderately active at the turn of the century, but closed shortly after. During their time in Titusville, B’nai Zion featured at least five rabbis: Felix Jesselsohn, Joseph Swed, Rev. Dr. Benjamin Eger, Rev. Alexander Rosenspitz, and Rev. M. Faber. The B’nai Zion synagogue is now home to Bluegill Graphix at 318 North Franklin Street.
B’nai Zion was not Titusville’s only Jewish congregation. Lithuanian Jews, mostly from New York state, migrated to the area and organized the B’nai Gemiluth Chesed Congregation. This congregation was of Orthodox Jewish Faith, as opposed to the Reformed Jewish Faith of B’nai Zion. B’nai Gemiluth Chesed was created by 20 people, including Rev. Moses Jarowich, in 1863 and was chartered in 1870. That same year, the congregation worshiped on Water Street, but sold the building in 1872. The next year, a new house of worship was opened on Martin Street and by 1885 the congregation boasted forty-three members. Early rabbis at B’nai Gemiluth Chesed included Isaac Bernstein, Rev. Sigel, W.D. Jacobson, M.G. Levensohn, H. Cohen, H. Levin, and M. Mendelson.
The B’nai Gemiluth Chesed synagogue featured reading desks, a special desk for reading the Scrolls of Law, a gallery for women and floor seating for men, white walls, chestnut furniture, and three large gas chandeliers. In 1925, both the Orthodox and Reformed Jewish congregations came together to finance the construction of a concrete road from McKinney Road to the Jewish Cemetery for better access.
The Jewish Cemetery is located on Old Route 8, 2.1 miles south of Titusville. It contains three cemeteries in one: B’nai Gemiluth Chesed in the center with 355 graves, B’nai Zion on the right with 74 graves, and the Oil City Tree of Life congregation on the left with 144 graves.
B’nai Gemiluth Chesed disbanded in 1970 and Jewish people in the region instead attended the Tree of Life Synagogue in Oil City.
The Jewish population in Titusville fluctuated with economic boom and bust in the region. The number of people of Jewish faith peaked in 1880 at around 500 persons. Jewish residents worked in a variety of occupations including butcher, cigar maker, store clerk, liquor dealer, clothier, merchant, and peddler. A great many of local Jewish people identified themselves as peddlers in the census, which indicates that the trade atmosphere in Titusville and the Oil Region was active and vital. The Weil family even opened the Hotel deWeil on a main street in town, which can be seen in the adjacent photo.
While not all experiences were positive for Jewish people in the region since there were documented cases of antisemitism, two lively congregations made their home here for many years, adding to the cultural and religious diversity of the Oil Region.
For more information on Jewish congregations all across Western Pennsylvania, see the Rauh Jewish Archives at the John Heinz History Center which holds thousands of documents about the life of Jewish people in our region and state.