The Jewish History Chronicle of More Than Centuries of Change in Istana – The Morning Bell
Part of the stone foundation is all that remains of the first synagogue in Istan, now an empty area on Sixth Street, overgrown with tall grass and weeds.
Standing in a nearby alley where stray cats roamed near bad-weather remnants earlier this month, Sarah White resurrected part of her story.
“When it was in this place, the English version is the Temple Covenant of Peace. The Hebrew translation is Brit Shalom, ”said White, community coordinator for the Northampton Historical and Genealogical Society. “And when this synagogue was at this place, it was here for 117 years. It was the oldest permanent synagogue in the United States. “
While the building disappeared, eventually sold to a Baptist church before a fire in the 1990s turned it into ruins, the site is one of more than 20 stops on a virtual tour of the Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Society’s Jewish history of Easton. The tour, launched in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, is chronological, covers downtown between Scott Park and Sixth Street, and includes images, quotes and sources.
“Eastan is by no means unusual in conversations we’ve had for 300 or 400 years,” White said. “We really want to emphasize that history is not really history because it never ends. . . . We really want the public, any visitors and members of the community to know that your story is as important as what you go to read in the museum. ”
The tour shows how the city has changed over more than a century of expansion, development and cultural transformation for Jewish residents, illustrating the rift between reform ideologies and conservatives that has fueled two separate congregations in the city for decades.
In general, conservative congregations are more likely to adhere to kosher dietary restrictions and use more Hebrew and less English in their services than those who identify themselves as reformers. Reform Judaism highly values social justice, and while conservative Judaism does the same, it places great emphasis on traditional Jewish law, governing religious beliefs and aspects of daily life.
That was quite recently both congregations came together, citing declining membership. In 1839, the Congregation for Temple Covenant of Peace, the Congregation for Reform, was founded. The conservative B’nai Abraham Synagogue appeared decades later, but by the turn of the century.
Eastan reached a peak of more than 35,000 residents in 1950, when synagogue membership peaked, and in the following decades their numbers declined by nearly 10,000 people. A 2007 demographic survey conducted by the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley found that 8,050 Jews live in 4,000 Jewish families across the region, meaning that 2% of the Lehigh Valley is Jewish, making it the third largest community in the state.
In August 2020, the two congregations of Easton merged, uniting about 160 families and turning into Bnai Shalom in the 1500 quarter on Bushkil Street.
“Because of the pandemic, we have obviously held back in our association as a community,” said Rabbi Melody Davis of Bnai Shalom. “And now we are starting to take those wonderful steps as a community that failed to make because of the pandemic.
“Finally, we now have personal services.”
Davis said one of the biggest hurdles for congregations was the sale of the Peace Treaty Temple building, just a few blocks away on Northampton Street, adding that “there are memories in the walls and it really tore the hearts out of many people.”
“People come and they join, and it’s just a blessing,” Melody said. “We’re kind of a great mix of old and new and experiments.”
And this mixture can be traced through a tour of the historical society.
Before the first synagogue was built on Sixth Street – in the mid-1800s modeled on a synagogue in northern Italy – life for Jews, many of them from Germany, did not include an official congregation, rabbi or house of prayer, White said. Instead, the wandering rabbi divided the time between New York and the Valley.
A synagogue was then built, a huge brick building with red accents and the Star of David in the center, she said. Around the same time, Jews from present-day Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, and Lithuania began to settle here.
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“That’s where I think it’s exciting because today we have a lot of discussions about acculturation and adaptation and the tension between the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ – we see that in these two segments of the Jewish community,” he said. White, noting that German Jews were more Americanized, while the next wave was more traditional in clothing, food, and language, many of whom spoke Yiddish.
“The tensions that are emerging between these two sects of the community, I think, really speak to many of the issues we are still discussing today,” White said.
Breaking away from the Reformed Jews in the Temple Peace Pact, the Conservative group formed B’nai Abraham in 1888. The building where they worshiped, another brick structure on South Sixth Street, has since been closed and is in disrepair. The Congregation outgrew it by moving to Bushkil Street in the mid-1960s.
“And it wasn’t long after the Reformed Congregation also moved,” White said. “And, ironically, they’re right down the street from each other here, and they’re also right down the street from each other out there.”
Although they were divided over ideologies, religious leaders decided to “merge to just keep their community alive,” White said.
“And it’s one of the things that I find so exciting and refreshing that even after all this tension and cultural conflict, they sit in both synagogues – they’ve always been there – even though they’re sitting next to each other,” White explained, “They’re in dialogue and deciding how they want to move forward to ensure that, as they’ve been asking themselves for 150 years, how do we adjust to continue to survive?”
The correspondent of “Morning Bell” correspondent Molly Bilinski can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.