Harrisburg is the capital city of Pennsylvania. The Jewish population in Harrisburg City and the surrounding Dauphin County is estimated at approximately 5,500 people. Cumberland County, across the Susquehanna River, has an estimated 1,800 Jewish population.
The first Jewish settlers in Harrisburg were immigrants from Germany and England; they arrived in the 1840s and assembled regularly for Sabbath and holiday services under the leadership of Lazarus Bernhard. In 1853, this group drew up the constitution for the first synagogue, Ohev Sholom, which was Orthodox until 1867, when it adopted Reform. Rabbi Philip David Bookstaber, spiritual head of the congregation from 1924 to 1962, was a leader of the Boy Scouts of America. Other congregations that formed since then were Chisuk Emuna (1884), now Traditional Conservative; Cong. Kesher Israel (1902), the leading Orthodox institution in central Pennsylvania; Temple Beth El (1926), egalitarian Conservative; and Machzike Hadas (1904), now known as Chabad-Lubavitch (ḥasidic). Other area synagogues include B'nai Jacob Synagogue, Conservative (on the National Registry of Historic Places), founded in 1906 in nearby Middletown (Dauphin County); Cong. Beth Shalom (1970), Reconstructionist, in Mechanicsburg; and Cong. Beth Tikvah, egalitarian, Carlisle, both in Cumberland County. Eliezer Silver , who served as rabbi of Kesher Israel from 1907 to 1925, founded many of the community's services, including the Harrisburg Hebrew School, a talmud torah; the Hebrew Free Loan Society; and the Transient Home.
Yeshiva Academy, providing secular and Jewish education to children from preschool through eighth grade, was one of the first Jewish day schools in the country outside a major metropolitan area. It was established (and renamed for) Rabbi David L. Silver, rabbi of Kesher Israel, and Aaron S. Feinerman. The Jewish Community Center was founded in 1915 as a YMHA, by Leon Lowengard; its name was changed in 1941, and it has occupied its current building since 1956. The Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg was formed in 2002 through the consolidation of the United Jewish Community (founded in 1933) and the Jewish Community Center. The Federation serves as the central fund-raising agency, speaks officially for the community on both Jewish matters and Jewish-gentile community relations, promotes the quality and values of Jewish life, and publishes the biweekly newspaper Community Review. Agencies supported by the Federation include the Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Group Home (for the developmentally disabled), the Jewish Home, and The Residence, a senior living community on the campus of the Home. David Silver, rabbi of Kesher Israel from 1932 to 1983, was the driving force (with Horace Goldberger) of the Jewish Home. In addition to afternoon schools at a few area congregations, the Federation sponsors the Harrisburg Hebrew High School for public school students. The Harrisburg Jewish community had the highest per capita donation in the country to the UJA emergency fund during Israel's Six-Day War. For decades its leading philanthropist was businesswoman Mary Sachs, known as the "Merchant Princess." The late David Javitch founded the Giant Food Stores chain with one meat market in Carlisle in 1923; in 1968 his son Lee (now retired) took over as president of the chain, now a part of Ahold U.S.A. Companies.
Other community leaders have included Albert Hursh (d. 2004), who served the JCC and Federation professionally for eight decades; Rite Aid Corporation founder Alex Grass, who has served as chair of the Board of Governors of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, member of the board of United Jewish Appeal, and member and past chair of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel; and Lois Lehrman Grass, philanthropist and patron of the arts.
Until the 1940s most Jews were engaged in the merchandising of food, clothing, and furniture; the scrap business; and peddling. In the 1960s, many were engaged in manufacturing clothing, food distribution, retail merchandising, the professions, and state government positions. In 1958 attorney Gilbert Nurick was the first Jew to head the State Bar Association. The first community college in the state, Harrisburg Area Community College, was established mainly because of the efforts of Bruce E. Cooper, chairman of its board. In 1969, William Lipsitt became the first Jewish judge of a county court. By the 1990s, most Jews were found in the professions and state government positions.
Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.