A little more than a year ago, Jack Cohen unexpectedly ran into a childhood friend from his Pittsburgh neighborhood while both were attending a work function.
Now living in Cranberry, the men reminisced about their Jewish roots. Cohen, who is executive director of the Butler County Tourism and Convention Bureau, enjoyed the conversation so much he began to wonder if there were others in the community who shared his upbringing.
“I thought, gee, wouldn’t it be nice to find other people with similar religious backgrounds,” he said.
As it turned out, there were quite a few.
Through mostly word of mouth, about 50 people showed up to an informal meeting that Cohen and Mike Berman scheduled last year to gauge interest in forming a group in which the area’s Jewish families could meet for fellowship and cultural-based activities.
“It was just really about finding other people in the community who were Jewish and wanted to associate together, celebrate holidays and have some fun,” Cohen said.
Dubbed the Cranberry Jewish Community, the group plans four major events a year. In anticipation of Hanukkah, Cohen, who is president of the organization, said members had a “Bring Your Own Menorah” event Friday.
Celebrated for eight days and nights, the Jewish holiday officially begins at sundown today.
Cohen said about 40 people attended Friday’s event, which included a communal candle-lighting practice. Challah, wine, latkes and other traditional holiday fare were served.
Attendees also shared the stories behind their menorahs, which are candle stands with nine branches on them. Cohen said there were menorahs at the gathering that had been handed down through the generations to family members, some that were purchased locally and others brought back from as far away as Israel and Ukraine.
“We sang songs and had fun with our families,” Cohen said. “There were people there who were 92 years old and little kids who were 2 years old.”
Cohen noted there aren’t any synagogues in the immediate area. People living around in the Cranberry area often attend services in Butler, Ambridge, Allison Park and a variety of locations in Pittsburgh, he said.
With the Cranberry Jewish Community in place, Cohen said members could enjoy faith-based activities within their own town.
“We just got three families who contacted us because of this [latest] event,” he said. “We probably will continue to grow as the word gets out more in the community.”
While he didn’t rule out a future synagogue in the Cranberry area, Cohen said the group’s members would continue to determine projects.
“It might be programs and education classes; it might be to celebrate holidays together,” he said of the group’s future. “There is no predetermined end piece yet.”
Cohen said a date has not been set for the next meeting to discuss upcoming activities. For more information about the Cranberry Jewish Community, visit the group’s Web site.