As Jews in Altoona will admit, this west-central Pennsylvania city doesn’t have a huge Jewish community. But to Pittsburgh’s Rabbi Yossi Stein and his wife Chana’le, that’s as good a reason as any to bring more Judaism to the area.
Later this month, the Steins and their two sons will move to Altoona to staff that city’s first-ever Chabad center full-time. Since December, the family has volleyed between Pittsburgh and Altoona to run Chabad events in Altoona, but with this move, they will run larger and more comprehensive programming.
“Wherever there are Jews, it’s a good place for a Chabad Center,” said Chana’le Stein.
Based in the Chabad-Lubavitch branch of Orthodox Judaism, Chabad Centers provide Jewish programming and educational opportunities in Jewish communities as well as college campuses, with over 3,000 institutions worldwide.
Altoona’s Jewish community consists of two congregations, Temple Beth Israel and Agudath Achim Congregation. Combined, they have an estimated 200 families. As Chabad Center’s are not formal houses of worship, often operated through people’s homes, Altoona’s Chabad will augment the Jewish programming already provided at the two synagogues, said Stein.
“We’re not looking to take away from what [the Jewish community] is. We’re looking to enhance what is already there,” she said. “We’re looking for women’s clubs, holiday programs. Nothing that is already there.”
Bill Wallen, the executive director of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation, said there is only so much the community can do by itself.
“The Altoona Jewish community is very small,” he said. “We can only offer limited programming to our Jewish families, particularly Jewish children.”
Though many Jews across the country grow up as the minorities in their communities, “it’s hard to grow up Jewish in Altoona,” Wallen added. “There are one or two [Jewish children] in their class or grade. The more opportunities they can have for Jewish experience, the better, and any additional Jewish programming is welcoming.”
Hazzan Michael Horwitz, of Agudath Achim Congregation, dismissed the idea that Chabad will compete with the established congregations or take away members.
“There’s a concern that this will conflict, that people will go from here to there,” said Horwitz. “That’s not [the Steins’] intention, nor do I feel it will be a problem.”
As the two Altoona congregations already collaborate on a single Sunday school, the Chabad Center may add especially to the community’s opportunity for educational programming. Wallen said Chabad may also bring Altoona’s growing group of unaffiliated Jews back into Jewish activities.
“It used to be that almost every Jewish family here would affiliate [with a congregation]; it’s not that way anymore,” Wallen said. “With Chabad, you don’t have to join and be a member to participate. Unaffiliated people are usually encouraged to come to a synagogue program, but it is with a congregation. [At Chabad] people may not feel that pressure.”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)