A Roman Catholic church may seem an odd starting point for a discussion of the Jewish influence in Greater Pittston, but tour organizer Jan Lokuta was quick to point out the significance of gathering in front of St. John the Evangelist Church, aside from the fact that it is one of the most visible landmarks in the heart of town.
Lokuta encouraged those gathered to direct their attention to the stained glass windows above the three large doorways at the front of the church where they would find six (two over each door) Stars of David, the symbol commonly associated with Judaism.
Lokuta said, to his knowledge, there are no other such stars displayed in the city. Referencing spiritual symbolism, he said it was likely the foliage surrounding the stars alluded to spiritual life and growth. A rose and cross were also depicted linking Christian and Jewish faiths, he added, to which Maxwell Marcus, invited by Lokuta to bring his knowledge of Judaism in Greater Pittston to the tour, said, “Remember, Jesus was a Jew.”
And that’s how Sunday’s 9th Annual Tour of Historic Churches of Greater Pittston, a traditional mid-summer celebration of the spiritual, historic, and architectural, began.
Lokuta, event founder and coordinator, said this year’s emphasis on the Jewish influence in the area was in keeping with original vision of the tour.
From St. John the Evangelist, Lokuta led participants on a short walk to the second stop on the tour, the site of what was once the Temple Agudath-Achim on Broad Street. The original structure, now the home of Child Jesus Roman Catholic Church, was modeled after Vienna’s Tempelglasse synagogue, an interpretation of the Biblical Solomon’s Temple, Lokuta told the group.
Peter Turon, a self-taught architect of Italian descent, was commissioned to design the structure in Moorish architectural style in 1915, he explained.
“Local architecture ranges from Gothic, to Baroque, to Byzantine techniques, offering residents an opportunity to experience a diversity of cultural style and presentation,” said Lokuta.
Lokuta, crediting Lawrence Newman, executive director Diamond City Partnership, with providing a wealth of historical information for the tour, said many members of the Congregation Agudath-Achim who worshiped at the synagogue, had roots in the eastern provinces of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The immigrants wanted the synagogue to be a reflection of both their faith and history.
When the building was remodeled in 1950, Lokuta went on, the congregation enlisted architect Sam Moskowitz who resigned the facade in a “more severe” international style.
The building underwent significant structural changes throughout 1950s and ’60s and is now home to a traditional Catholic church with a contemporary presentation.
The tour’s next stop was the West Pittston cemetery, home to three Jewish burial sites.
Marcus, founder of Exeter Historical Society, addressed attendees, sharing personal and historical information regarding the burial grounds. Marcus said many prominent Jewish families had ancestors memorialized at the site, an indication of the large population of Jewish residents the area once held.
The congregations of Knesseth Israel, Duryea; Anshe Ahavas-Achim, Exeter; and Agudath-Achim, Pittston, honor the memories of the faithful on the grounds of the cemetery.
Marcus said the stop on the tour had special significance to him because his parents and grandparents are buried in the Exeter area of the cemetery.
He stressed all three cemeteries still retain grounds keepers, maintaining the grounds in a manner which makes them a true tribute to both the individuals buried there and the Jewish faith which at one time had truly permeated the area.
The third and final stop on the tour was especially interesting to many attendees. A recently discovered treasure presented itself to Ron Faraday, founder of the Greater Pittson Historical Society, during an effort to refresh the West Pittston Cemetery. He had the privilege of sharing it with tour participants.
Faraday and a group of volunteers gathered to clean up the Pittston Cemetery last autumn, removing weeds and brush that impeded full use of the cemetery. To their surprise, they came upon a Jewish burial ground believed to have been originally owned by the Pennsylvania Coal Company in 1858.
The cemetery was taken over by the Pittston Cemetery Association in 1885. Many grave markers bear familiar names of those buried there from the cemetery’s inception to the relatively recent past. Many attendees recognized names inscribed on the grave stones and were quick to share a memory or a bit of history.
Doris Brown, a member of the Duryea congregation, said local synagogues sprang up “from Plymouth to Duryea” because of orthodox tradition dictating motor vehicles could not be used on the Sabbath. This made it necessary for residents to establish small local synagogues within walking distance, allowing them to share both their lives and their faith.
Lokuta took the opportunity to reflect on a sense of diversity and community that defines the area. He said as a young man, Jewish neighbors had shared a recipe for “hamantaschen,” an ethnic pastry using orange juice as a flavoring.
“We ate hamantaschen at Christmas and Easter,” said a smiling Lokuta.
When asked, several attendees were quick to offer to forward the recipe.
This year’s Greater Pittston Area’s church tour provided attendees the opportunity to better understand the impact new immigrants had on the architecture and design of local houses of worship and burial places. It also celebrated the lives and history of the local Jewish community.
Lokuta, who has embraced the tour as an annual celebration of ecclesiastical architecture, said he looks forward to continuing the tradition for years to come.