A town as victim
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A town as victim

Lebanon rabbi reacts to the arrest of state Sen. Mike Folmers

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Last week Pennsylvania state Sen. Mike Folmer, a Republican lawmaker representing Lebanon County and parts of York and Dauphin counties, resigned after being arrested on charges of possession of child pornography.

The obvious victims when it comes to this kind of crime are the young children in images or videos. Their futures are stolen, and as they grow up they’re at increased risk for suicide, depression and anxiety. They will never be the same.

But in this particular case, there is a less obvious victim of the former senator: Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where I serve as rabbi.

Once a manufacturing powerhouse, Lebanon’s economy has been diminished since the 1970s, when a flood closed the smallest Bethlehem Steel plant in the town’s center. Over the last 30 years, as globalization pushed factories and retail stores overseas and online, the town slumped further into the rusted underbelly of America’s manufacturing carcass. The town population never recovered from what it was in the 1960s.

But what about the Jews? Lebanon’s heartland story does not exempt the Jewish people. The erosion of the middle class is indiscriminate and, each year, our membership directory gets more lopsided as successful individuals leave for nearby cities like Harrisburg or Philadelphia, or disappear to Florida. A few months ago I commemorated the closing of the last Jewish retail business in town with a local article titled “Saying Mourner’s Kaddish for a Business.” Another congregant who trains me at the YMCA used to run a clothing business that employed around 100 people. Now he’s a retired city councilman.

I’m able to work as a rabbi in Lebanon because the great donors of the 1990s set up a perpetuity fund. The Jews of Congregation Beth Israel believed so firmly in Lebanon that they couldn’t imagine the town without a Jewish voice. Most members, rather than move to a nearby Jewish home for the aged, remain in local facilities where they can continue to participate in town affairs. More than one congregant has given me the opportunity to teach at their alma mater Lebanon Valley College. The matriarch of our community, a frail and beautiful woman of 93 years young, is the widow of a beloved town mayor. When traveling through town, I count three roads named after members, and one park monument.

Lebanon has also changed drastically in its demographic makeup. In the same short span of declining economic opportunities, the Hispanic population rose to more than 40%, thanks in large part to accepting hurricane refugees in the mid 2000s (one of our congregants built the Section 8 housing units that holds a portion of this demographic). The Muslim community is visibly growing and present at many town functions. The white community is shrinking, and hardest hit by the opioid crisis. As Jews, we play an important role in local town politics. Without hesitation, the incumbent mayor read our congregation’s opening prayer to 400 visitors in commemoration of the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh last year.

From there, like-minded clergy formed an interfaith group advocating for each other. This is the type of coalition that the American Jewish Congress encourages rabbis to cultivate — reciprocal relationships with many different groups of people that could help quash anti-Semitism, should it rear its ugly head. Some of our initiatives were to increase amenities in sections of the town that had been underfunded, register voters, provide medical services to impoverished families, open up the schools for longer hours so children would have a safe place to play and do homework, and more.

One of the biggest supporters of our interfaith clergy group was former Sen. Folmer, who ostensibly shared our vision of unity, and committed his energy to these initiatives. During our meeting with the then-senator, he wasted no time in sharing how rigorously he prays every morning. You can see him in a picture of our interfaith clergy group. Folmer, a man who will most likely be convicted of a litany of charges related to sex abuse, was a local persona who stood by the Lebanon community. “Marijuana Mike,” as he was called (because of his role in passing medical marijuana legislation in Pennsylvania), worked on bringing jobs and retail stores back into town. He wanted to register new voters and cut down partisan gerrymandering.

It’s with a unique sadness that the town of Lebanon cut ties with its senator recently, as the crime he committed is too grave for forgiveness. And our town will pay the price for his sins, as Pennlive reported it’s unclear how many initiatives will be affected by his resignation. What is clear is that the hours spent developing a special relationship with Lebanon’s only senator is known in economics as a “sunk cost.” An entire year of advocacy wiped out.

From my office you can see news trucks reporting the latest in front of the state building. Members, strangers and friends mutter in shock, “Can you believe it?” and “He must be so stupid…” and pray that the changes he promised don’t disappear entirely. That’s the complicated reality of politics. A senator’s heinous action can stall a town’s economic recovery, while a few blocks away children go hungry. pjc

Rabbi Sam Yolen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Lebanon, Pennsylvania.

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