A Considerable People: The Jewish Community of Greater Harrisburg

A Considerable People: The Jewish Community of Greater Harrisburg

Through November 2009
Schwab Family Holocaust Reading Room, Library

The Occident, the first national Jewish periodical published in the United States, took notice of Harrisburg’s Jewish community in 1858 because of the growth of the city’s only synagogue, Temple Ohev Sholom, established six years earlier. Counting 20 members of the congregation, the paper commented, “the number of our people in the state capital must be quite considerable.” Attracted by Harrisburg’s rise as an upriver hub of trade and state capital, this handful of Jews, a small fraction of the city’s population of 10,000, was primarily engaged in clothing and peddling trades and came mostly from Germany. During the 1860s, with the establishment of a school and cemetery, and hiring of a rabbi, the editors hoped that Harrisburg’s Jewish community could prosper and show a “progressive advance.” Even if small in population compared to Philadelphia, and later Pittsburgh, Harrisburg emerged by the late twentieth century as the major mid-state center for Jewish life and its members accomplished what has been consistently called a “considerable” amount for a community its size.

Dedicating Kesher Isreal Dedicating Kesher Israel Harrisburg’s Jewish community counted under 600 residents as late as 1905, but increased its size tenfold in the next decade when it received immigrants escaping pogroms, poverty, and oppression from the Russian Empire, mostly in the area of Lithuania known as the Pale of Settlement (Jews were prohibited from residing beyond its borders by the czars). By the 1920s, Jews could attend a range of synagogues designated as Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, and Hasidic in Middletown and Steelton as well as in Harrisburg. Some religious and occupational differences could be discerned into the period, with the old German families identified with the Reform movement and the East European Jews associated with Orthodoxy, but an organization meant to bridge divisions and also represent communal interests was launched as the “United Jewish Community” in 1933. Before then, a Y.M.H.A. had been formed to provide Jews with cultural and recreational opportunities, and a Jewish community newspaper was established in 1926. The “Y” changed its name to the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in 1941 and moved into a new expanded facility uptown in 1958 as the Jewish neighborhood moved north. It featured a local Jewish day camp, theater program, and a Hebrew High School, in addition to cooperating with the establishment of a Jewish day school or Yeshiva (later named after founding Rabbi David Silver). In the years that followed, and

bar mitzvah A Bar Mitzvah portrait in the early 20th century impressive range of social service and advocacy organizations was constituted by Harrisburg’s Jews, including the Jewish Home (a nursing facility), Early Learning Center, Jewish Family Services, B’nai Brith Apartments, Holocaust Education Task Force, Zionist Organization of America, Hadassah, Harrisburg Chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish youth groups, and scout troops. Toward the end of the century, it was organizing educational programs to combat anti-Semitism and discrimination and campaigns to allow passage to Soviet, Syrian, and Ethiopian Jews. It was also during this period that the community dispersed beyond its ethnic enclave between Division Street and Linglestown Road (colloquially called by residents “Little Israel”) in numerous directions—toward the West Shore of the Susquehanna River, northeast into Susquehanna and Lower Paxton townships, and east in Hershey. The first synagogues to be established in the metropolitan area since the pre-World-War-II period sprouted in Mechanicsburg and Carlisle, including the first Reconstructionist congregation in the region. Several factors contributed to the community’s dispersal: increasing Jewish social mobility, damage to homes by Hurricane Agnes in 1972, and in that same year, the construction of Interstate 81. As Michael Solomon remembers, the highway “posted a clean cut through Little Israel. No longer could you walk, bicycle or even drive uninterrupted through the neighborhood. The northern third of Little Israel was physically cut off from the other side.” The ethnic profile of the community also diversified beyond its “Ashkenazi” (roots in Central and Eastern Europe) core with “Sephardic” (roots in Medieval Spain) Jews from the Middle East (including Israel), Mediterranean, Caribbean, and Latin America. 1925 Basketball Team1925 Basketball Team If no longer situated exclusively in a neighborhood, the diverse community comes together culturally at holidays and socially in a number of causes and pursuits. The decision was made during the 1990s to renovate, rather than relocate, the Jewish Community Center to make it a vital hub of activity. The community has rallied together in crisis and in joy. It has entered the digital age with its own websites, listservs, and blogs. In addition to continuing its organizations that provide mutual aid and cultural continuity, today it reaches out more to the broader society with events such as the annual Jewish Film Festival, Holocaust Memorial in Riverside Park, and cultural concert series. It has cooperated with Penn State Harrisburg by donating its oral history collection to the Library for research and remembrance. It pulsates with “considerable” activity, evident in the number of organizations on the community’s calendar.

The photographs in this exhibit offer glimpses of the community’s history from the early twentieth century to the present. They are drawn primarily from the collections of the Jewis

h Federation of Greater Harrisburg; loans of additional material come from Simon J. Bronner, Susan Silver Cohen, Historical Society of Dauphin County, and Joe Woolf. The exhibition “A Considerable People: The Jewish Community of Greater Harrisburg” is part of the programming organized by Penn State Harrisburg’s Holocaust and Jewish Studies Center for the 2008-2009 academic year. The Center acknowledges the support of Dr. Madlyn Hanes, Chancellor, Penn State Harrisburg; Dr. Kathryn Robinson, Director of the School of Humanities; Dr. Gregory Crawford, Library Director; Linda Schwab; and Irwin and Nancy Aronson.

Curator: Simon J. Bronner
Technical Assistant: Catherine McCormick
Curatorial Intern: Kelli Curtin
Administrative Support: Ella Dowell, Jenifer Dimeler
Graphics: Sharon Siegfried
Website: Center for Holocaust and Jewish Studies