The Jewish population of central Pennsylvania may be dwindling, but its stories and records will be kept alive, thanks to the stewardship of Jewish leaders in Huntingdon, as well as a group of non-Jewish Northern Cambria high school students and a dedicated history teacher.
“There was the realization that there was a lot of Jewish life in central Pennsylvania, and that nobody knew that much about it,” said Stanford Lembeck, president of Agudath Achim in Huntingdon. “It all came to mind last year that time is passing quickly, and we are losing these stories (of the local Jewish families). We are trying to intervene to make this important history continue to live.”
To that end, Lembeck, along with Holly Mollo, spiritual leader of Agudath Achim, have established the Center for the Study of Jewish Life in central Pennsylvania, a cooperative effort among Agudath Achim, Juniata College, Juniata College Hillel and the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati.
The Center in Huntingdon will collect artifacts and oral histories to provide resources for scholarship and families seeking to learn about their forbears from Sunbury to Lock Haven, from Lewistown to Punxsutawney.
“We had been aware for some time of the attrition of these communities,” said Mollo. “There were congregations that were going away, and they needed hospice care. What happens to the artifacts, the books, the yahrtzeit boards, the Torahs — all the trappings of a synagogue? There was no place where people could preserve this stuff.”
The archives will be housed at Juniata College, which also served as the location of the Center’s first annual Shabbaton last October. Parts of the Shabbaton were also held at Agudath Achim.
The planning for the Shabbaton was well under way when Lembeck and Mollo read an article in The Jewish Chronicle published last July about the students in Northern Cambria, and their work to preserve their own town’s Jewish history, as well as the 85-year-old Barnesboro synagogue building. Barnesboro merged with the nearby town of Spangler several years ago to form Northern Cambria.
“We had already developed our prospectus for the Center when we came across the article [in the Chronicle],” Lembeck recalled. “That was in the works. The Barnesboro story came as a kind of special treat and surprise.”
At the invitation of Lembeck, about 10 students from Northern Cambria High School, and their teacher, Karen Bowman, attended the Shabbaton. The group did a presentation about their own work in chronicling Jewish history, and listened to the information presented by others throughout the day. Hearing various presentations about the Jewish families of central Pennsylvania, as well as touring Agudath Achim, helped bring history to life for her students, Bowman said.
“It was a wonderful day, chock full of information about what everyone wanted to know about the Jews of central Pennsylvania,” Bowman said. “We were able to see from the Juniata synagogue what ours might have been like when it was in operation. We have a shell, but they have an active worship life. It totally turned the tables for us, and made us realize they have what we don’t in our story, and what we’ve been searching for. They have pre-empted circumstances.”
In fact, despite the flight of Jews from central Pennsylvania, Agudath Achim’s congregation is actually growing, mostly through the absorption of members of congregations in surrounding areas that have closed. Although it was barely surviving throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Agudath Achim now boasts about 100 members, and drew between 40 and 60 people for the High Holy Days this past year.
While it is true that the resurgence of Agudath Achim is unusual in the region, it is not alone.
“One of the most interesting developments, in Sunbury, is they just built a new synagogue in the last two to four years,” Lembeck said. “They replaced the previous synagogue, which had fallen into disrepair. And the new synagogue was designed by Robert Venturi, a world-class architect. It’s extraordinary.”
But despite the relative success of Agudath Achim, and the re-birth of Congregation Beth El in Sunbury, most congregations in central Pennsylvania are struggling.
Lembeck believes that by combining, and sharing resources, the congregations of central Pennsylvania may be able to better survive. He hopes the establishment of the Center may help to unite the various small communities scattered throughout the region.
“We would like to see synagogues work with each other,” Lembeck said. “They are now all independent, and we think that through the Center, we might be able to provide an initiative for them to work together.”
The Center has already begun to collect historical objects from area synagogues that have closed, like Ohev Shalom in Lewistown, from which the Center is preserving personalized metal plaques that adorned the seats of some of its members.
Because he anticipates collecting a vast array of artifacts and oral histories, Lembeck hopes to recruit additional volunteers to help archive the information gathered, as well as develop a coherent system of archiving. He also hopes to involve Juniata students in the work, and to locate memorabilia from synagogues that no longer exist.
“There was a synagogue in Punxatawney that no longer exists,” Lembeck said. “We are looking for its remnants. So far, we have only found a small black and white woodcut.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)