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

Will New Campus Turn Around Decades of Decline?

wikipedia

By Uriel Heilman

Published June 07, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.