By Adam Grobman
On May 13, three scholars and Jewish communal workers outlined the history and significance of Harrisburg’s Jewish Community in an online program with Dauphin County Library.
From the beginning migrations to the area in the mid-1800s to activities happening today, Dr. Simon Bronner, Dr. Andrea Lieber, and Federation President/CEO Jenn Ross described a rich and diverse community that has endured for generations.
“I consider Harrisburg very important as a Jewish community in the small-city ethnic experience,” said Dr. Simon Bronner, whose presentation drew on his work from his book, Greater Harrisburg’s Jewish Community.
Dr. Bronner noted early prominent families such as the Lowengards – who are recognized by a building named in their honor that still stands in Harrisburg – as well as the evolution of Jewish neighborhoods, synagogues, and organizations.
Secular Jewish life began in Harrisburg with the establishment of the YMHA in 1915. “It was founded with the purpose of getting children off the streets,” said Dr. Bronner. “Jewish children in particular.”
Dr. Bronner recognized innovative achievements, such as “The Harrisburg Plan,” which united fundraising and philanthropy under a central organization, as well as the community’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement and combatting anti-semitism. A photo showed swastika graffiti defacing Ohev Sholom in 1960, similar to the symbols desecrating Kesher Israel in 2020.
The area’s peak Jewish population was estimated at 10,000 in the early 1980s. “Despite the size of their community, they’ve done more than their share,” Bronner said, quoting a 19th century Jewish newspaper, The Israelite.
Jenn Ross outlined some recent shifts in the Jewish community, noting the Pew Research Center’s report, Jewish Americans in 2020, which was released earlier that day. She noted that the community is extremely diverse with collaboration between sects of Judaism.
“I love this community,” she says. “I moved here from New York and have never been in a more warm, integrated community- whether you belong to one congregation, or another, or none, you are connected with each other.”
Jenn gave an overview of the rich institutions that serve the Jewish community. When someone asked what “JCC” meant, she explained that the building is open to all.
“We have to make our institutions demonstrate their value more than that they would have when they first opened,” she said.
Dr. Andrea Leiber of Dickinson College focused on educational institutions in Harrisburg. She presented that Harrisburg’s small size forced it to be a site of outsized creativity and innovation.
“Because Harrisburg is small, we have really had to share in terms of the institutions that have developed,” she says. “Ironically, that’s where really creative things happen – with only one Jewish school and pre-school, one Mikveh, one JCC, one Jewish home, different denominations have to come together because all of these things are essential elements for Jewish life and culture.”
Dr. Leiber explored the beginnings of The Silver Academy and how its mission and purpose has changed over the decades since its founding in 1944 as one of the first small-community Jewish day schools.
“’How do we define what it means to be Jewish?’ became the question in the 21st century,” she says, recalling the issues she and the school faced during her six years as Board President of the school. “ In order to survive, the school has had to engage these questions that reflect the complexity of Jewish life today.”
She also outlined the founding of Gesher, a collaborative Hebrew school that met needs of multiple organizations through one solution. “It was founded out of necessity, because individual schools were suffering,” Dr. Leiber says. “But we wound up creating a school that was vibrant, exciting, and crossed denominational lines – that’s what I think of when I think of Harrisburg’s strengths.”
A recording of the hourlong program, titled %u201CCelebrate Jewish American Heritage Month,” is available on Dauphin County Library System’s Youtube page.