Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh New Home for Elbert Weinberg Steubenville Sculpture
by Samuel D. Gruber
The series of bronze sculpted figures titled Procession I by noted American-Jewish sculptor Elbert Weinberg (1928-1991) that had stood at Temple Beth Israel in Steubenville, Ohio, for forty years, has found a new home at Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh. This is one of three cast editions of this multi-piece work. The other two are on view in the courtyard of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and indoors at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, DC.
Temple Beth Israel in Steubenville closed the doors on its 1966-built synagogue and held its last Shabbat service on May 17, 2013. It wasn't a question of lacks of funds; it was a problem of lack of members. The congregants decided not to await a total collapse of their synagogue - figuratively and literally - but to close the congregation from a position of relative strength. This was not a case of "the last one out, turn off the lights." But for a congregation down from 200 to only 35 families, the writing was on the wall. The congregation chose to close and sell the building, and after some careful consideration to find new religious homes for congregants (who now need to drive a half hour to Wheeling, West Virginia or to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for services) and for their Judaica. Procession I was the largest and most notable possession.
I like these works by Weinberg a lot, and the similar group Procession II installed on the grounds of Congregation Beth El in West Hartford, Connecticut, too. They've got me looking at other Weinberg work and I look forward to a stop in Hartford later this month to see more where he created a Holocaust memorial for his native city in 1982 and his bronze statue The Blind Sister of Narcissus, was recently installed outside the New Britain Museum of American Art in nearby New Britain, CT. Weinberg's papers were recently donated to the Hartford Public Library where they are presently being processed.
Weinberg had many other large commissions including the Holocaust Memorial in Wilmington, Delaware (1982) and works at the Embarcadero Center and the JW Marriott San Francisco Union Square Hotel in San Francisco, completed in the 1980s, not long before his premature death. Click here to see a large selection of Wienberg's sculpture including Judaica and Biblical works.
Weinberg was a Fellow of American Academy of Rome, and I think he was the youngest sculptor so honored when he won the Rome Prize in sculpture in 1951. But he was not the first Jewish sculptor at the Academy. Leo Friedlander, Reuben R. Kramer, and Albert Wein had all been there before.
While in Rome, Weinberg made his first significant Judaica piece. "Ritual Figure" was a woodcarving of a man blowing a shofar. The work is figural - but interpretative and expressive. The piece was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art and was on the cover of Art in America. Soon after, Grace Borgenicht of the Borgenicht Gallery in New York City, took Weinberg on as an artist. The Procession figures - especially the menorah-carrying figure in Procession I and the shofar-blowers in Procession II - are descendants of that first Ritual Figure. It was through Borgenicht that in 1968, the Kobacker family purchased Procession I and donated the work to Temple Beth El in Steubenville.
Pittsburgh, PA. Rodef Shalom Congregation. Procession I by Elbert Weinberg. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2014
Thanks to the following for help with this post:
Martha Berg, archivist, Rodef Shalom Congregation, Pittsburgh;
Harold Lindenthal, Elbert Weinberg Trust
Stephen Brown, The Jewish Museum
Julian Preisler, author of The Synagogues of Central and Western Pennsylvania (2014)