History of the Harrisburg Jewish Community


Harrisburg, the capital city of Pennsylvania, and the surrounding Dauphin County, have an estimated 5,164 Jews out of a population of 48,950 in the city and 251,798 in the county--according to a 1994 demographic survey by the Jewish Federation (then called United Jewish Community). Cumberland County, across the Susquehanna River, has an estimated 1,821 Jews out of a population of 213,674.


The first Jewish settlers in Harrisburg immigrated from Germany and England. They arrived in the 1840s and met regularly for Sabbath and holiday services under the leadership of Lazarus Bernhard beginning in 1853. They later established the first synagogue, Ohev Sholom (Reform), which was Orthodox until 1867. Chisuk Emuna, now Traditional Conservative, was established in 1884; Kesher Israel, Modern Orthodox, in 1902; Temple Beth El, egalitarian Conservative, in 1926; and Machzike Hadas, now known as Chabad-Lubavitch (Hasidic), in 1904. Other area synagogues include B'nai Jacob in Middletown; Beth Shalom (Reconstructionist); and Cong Beth Tikvah in Carlise, which is egalitarian. There is also a Hillel House in Dickinson College.


Some leaders of the community were Philip David Bookstaber, rabbi of Ohev Sholom from 1924 to 1962 and a Boy Scout leader; Eliezer Silver, rabbi of Kesher Israel from 1907 to 1925, who founded the Harrisburg Hebrew School and Hebrew Free Loan Society; his son, David Silver, who served as rabbi of Kesher Israel from 1932 to 1983, who was the driving force, with Horace Goldberger of the Jewish Home, and, founder, along with Aaron S. Feinerman, of the Yeshiva Academy in 1944.


Other leaders included Mary Sachs, the leading philanthropist and businesswoman known as the "Merchant Princess"; her sister Hannah Sachs Cantor, who, with her husband Ben Cantor, carried on the charitable work of Mary Sachs; David Javitch, founder of Giant Food Stores; and Albert Hursh, who served the JCC and Federation professionally for some 80 years. Gilbert Nurick was the first Jew to head the State Bar Association; Harrisburg Area Community College was established in large measure due to the efforts of Bruce E. Cooper; and William Lipsett becamse the first Jewish judge of a county court.


Contemporary leaders include Alex Grass, founder of Rite Aid and member of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel; and philanthropist and arts patron, Lois Lehrman Grass.


Harrisburg is rich in community institutions. In addition to its many synagogues, there is the Jewish Federation, which serves as the central fundraising agency, represents the community, and publishes the biweekly "Community Review." Agencies supported by the Federation are Jewish Family Service, and the Jewish Group Home for the developmentally disabled. Also supported by and housing the Federation is the Jewish Community Center, founded as a YMHA in 1915 and occupying its present building since 1956. The JCC also houses Sababa, a Hebrew and Jewish learning program for public school students.