A $11M Leap of Faith for Jews in Small Pennsylvania City of Wilkes-Barre

Will New Campus Turn Around Decades of Decline?

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By Uriel Heilman

Published June 07, 2014.
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(JTA) — There once was a time when the Jewish community in this Pennsylvania city just west of the Pocono Mountains was thriving.

That much is clear from a quick tour. The sanctuary at the local Orthodox synagogue, Ohav Zedek, seats nearly 1,000. Temple Israel, the Conservative shul, has two huge buildings — a hulking sanctuary and a three-story school. There’s a Jewish day school, a JCC with its own bowling alley and a Reform synagogue with multiple sanctuaries.

But there’s also ample evidence that the Jewish heyday is long gone.

At the JCC, the six-lane basement bowling alley went dark years ago, shoes and balls sitting in their places as if frozen in time. Mold is growing on the ceiling at the four-lane indoor pool, and though there’s a lifeguard and it’s mid-afternoon, nobody is swimming.

The day school, United Hebrew Institute, left its 17,000-square-foot building in 2010 for a smaller space in the JCC. Now down to just six students and with its endowment gone, the school will cease operations later this month.

Most Saturdays, fewer than 20 of Ohav Zedek’s 940 seats are occupied. At the Conservative synagogue, the daily minyan has been trimmed to three days a week; the average congregant is over age 60.

Home decades ago to an estimated 6,000-7,000 Jews, Wilkes-Barre today has fewer than 1,800 Jews left.

Yet the Jewish federation here is about to launch an audacious new fundraising campaign to raise $6 million for the construction of an $11 million Jewish community campus.

The planned Center for Jewish Life, located about a mile away from the JCC and just across the Susquehanna River in Kingston, will house a new JCC, the federation and Temple Israel’s offices and congregational school — to start. The hope is that other local Jewish institutions eventually will move in, too, making the consolidated site the hub of the Jewish community in Luzerne County.

This old mining city nestled in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming Valley is hardly the only shrinking Jewish community in America trying to figure out how to survive. But its plan for warding off its demise is quite unusual.

“It’s a very exciting project,” said Chuck Cohen, a dental products manufacturer who is a main backer along with local businessmen Paul Lantz and Rob Friedman. The three purchased the 13-acre property on Third Avenue in Kingston several years ago after a Price Chopper supermarket there closed down and the site went into bankruptcy.


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