Like in many small cities in the United States, the Jewish community of Olean doesn’t have the numbers to maintain its temple building — thus Temple B’Nai Israel is in the process of passing to Olean Community Theatre.
But an important part of the B’Nai Israel congregation will be revered in a new home: a sacred Torah, donated to the Olean congregation in 1941, has been passed to a Jewish youth camp in California. The Torah was transferred during a ceremony in June to Camp Tawonga in the Stanislaus National Forest in Northern California.
The request that the Torah be transferred was made by Olean native Oscar Rosenbloom, a Palo Alto, Calif., attorney whose family were longtime members of the B’Nai Israel congregation.
“While the Torah moves geographically from the East Coast to the West Coast, it remains deeply rooted in the life and learning that has been at the heart of Jewish tradition,” Oscar wrote to the B’Nai Israel members. “The Torah comes to the Camp Tawonga community from the Olean Jewish community with a special meaning for our family.
“It is a part of of a direct lineage for us to the Rosenbloom family that goes back four generations to 1937, when Jacob and Ida Rosenbloom’s four sons came to Olean to live, build a family retail business and rear their children. Those family members are all buried in the B’Nai Israel Cemetery in Pleasant Valley.”
The Torah was donated to the congregation of in honor of the late Oscar Rosenbloom, founder of Jay Furniture Co., after his death in October 1941.
“I am his namesake,” Oscar of Palo Alto wrote. “As such, it brings with it the history of B’Nai Israel’s community to teach others what Jewish community life has been like in small communities like Olean.”
The organization of Olean’s Jewish community essentially dates back to 1881, with the arrival of merchant Harris W. Marcus, who had lived in Mobile, Ala., and Brooklyn before visiting relatives here.
Marcus, who went into business here, took the lead in forming a social organization for the families, first called the Olean Social Club. As the Jewish community grew, it formed the Olean Hebrew Association in 1894, changing its name to the Olean Hebrew Congregation in 1896.
Temple B’Nai Israel, at 127 S. Barry St., was completed in 1929 with Marcus as president of the congregation. As the spiritual and social center for the local Jewish community, the temple was a haven for the Jewish people in the time leading to and during World War II, when, according to a history of the temple compiled for the Commemoration of Torah Transfer in June, “fear of Nazism swept all Jews everywhere and held the Jewish communities together wherever they still existed.”
After the war, however, the congregation experienced a leveling in numbers and commencement of a gradual and sustained decline — with some of the reasons economic in general and some unique to the Jewish community.
A changing local economy meant there were fewer opportunities for Jewish merchants, while at the same time many local Jewish high school graduates went away to college and then pursued careers elsewhere. The smaller size of the congregation meant it was harder to find qualified rabbis and at times te congregation shared its rabbis with the neighboring congregation of Temple Beth El in Bradford, Pa.
In more recent years, rabbis have traveled from the Buffalo area to perform services.
Despite the smaller congregation numbers, building “still functions as a synagogue, an important spiritual and social center for the local Jewish community. Having never been altered in any significant way, the building conveys the distinctive characteristics of of eclectic ‘Moorish’ or ‘Semitic’ synagogue architecture as applied to a building of modest size but ambitious artistic aspiration and maintains the sense of sacred space in its worship space which was its hallmark.”
The building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2012.