Kehillat Israel History

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Jewish Community Records of Shenandoah Pa

Posted by kehillatisrael on December 19, 2007 at 9:15 AM Comments comments (37)






They are few in number now. The last 5 represent the remnants of a once thriving Jewish community whose history parallels the history of America, at least 121 years of it. My family: great grandfather, 4 grandparents, my father, my brother, Aunts, Uncles and cousins are there as well � in the cemetery on the hill.


These are the records of the Kehillath Israel  Synagogue � the Jewish community of Shenandoah, Penna., chartered in 1884. It is officially over now, the synagogue and community center sold, the mikveh empty, the torahs gone, the shul dismantled piece by piece, beloved pew by beloved pew.


Shenandoah, in NE Penna lies at the western end of the poconos. It sits in a valley surrounded by the Allegheny mountains, part of the Appalachians.  Toward the middle of the 19th century, rich anthracite coal veins were discovered in the area and for about 90 years, till replaced by natural gas and oil, coal was king. The hills and mountains surrounding the town, now green with vegetation were black with slag when I was a child and the mines were working.


It was coal that brought thousands of immigrants to Shenandoah, among them all 4 of my grandparents from Lithuania, Latvia and the Ukraine. The Jewish immigrants, for the most part capitalized on the need to service the miners and their families in mercantile industry. Every shop on main street was owned by Jews.  In 1916, some years after my grandparents arrived,  Shenandoah had the densest population in 1 square mile in the country � 30,000 people.


Many of the immigrants who came to Shenandoah did live the American dream. Safe from the fears of Europe they did business and got along with their gentile neighbors,  worked hard, did well and raised American children while preserving their Judaism. Moreover they forged a community and the institutions of a community a synagogue, a hebrew community center, a cemetery, talmud torah., ladies aid society. The minutes which begin in Yiddish in 1920 (first book from 1884-1920 has been lost) reflect a sick committee, membership committee, choral committee, auditing committee, journal committee, mikvah committee-a Board of Education, cemetery committee and butcher committee. The butcher shop was owned by the community and its fate was the subject of continual discussion and debate throughout the years.


These records reflect both the industriousness of community members in preserving the values, ritual and spirituality of their heritage and their equal assumption of their responsibilities as new Americans..  

The minutes of the community meetings are charming, humorous, informing, historical, disarming, sometimes disturbing and painful, e.g., the minutes after 1939  as a rather isolated Jewish community wrestles with the guns of war and the implications for them.


Some Examples:

On February 28, 1926 there was a Purim party where my grandfather  Sam Harris, a bakery owner and President of the shul provided 110 Hamentaschen � for $11.


During the 1920�s and prohibition, the Shamos, Mr. Goldhoffer was relieved of his duties when it was found he was had made a �still� in the mikveh.


During the depression times were tough, especially for the Rabbi whose duties included killing the chickens for the butcher shop.


There were planned debates at the end of each meeting:

November, 1938: �Was Chamberlain Right in Signing the Munich Pact with Hitler�


April, 1939- Debate: �Should Yiddish or Hebrew be taught to our children?�


There are meticulous ledgers on the �business� of the community , their assets and debits and strategies to keep them in business, especially during the depression. There were ledgers for shul dues, hebrew school fee and discussions about who paid and who didn�t , ( and in a small town, who didn�t was no secret); discussions as to who could and couldn�t among those who did and didn�t. Discussions re: membership recruitment,  teachers salaries, bills for carpenters, plumbers, food for events, cleaning the shul for Rosh Hashanna, fire insurance..



In World War II the Shenandoah Jewish community sent 110 sons and daughters to war in every branch of the service including every male member of my family. Two of them did not return.  A third, a POW was sent to the salt mines where the Germans sent Jewish GI�s vs. POW camp. Few returned. Buddy did. All served honorably and many received many medals of honor- purple hearts,  bronze stars, etc.


It was after the war that the community began to decline with the declining fortunes of the town as the mines closed, and the educational and economic opportunities (under the GI bill) in larger cities beaconed.


The records of the Shenandoah community are an example and a tribute to the many, many Jewish communities that once thrived but have since dissolved throughout 350 years of American Jewish history. Although the reasons vary, they all died of natural causes vs. the lost communities of Europe. And that is because America has been the golden medina. These records are my legacy and that of my children, grandchildren and their grandchildren. May they be blessed in memory. We come from a good place. I could not be more proud.