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Chester County: Forgotten Frontier?

December 9, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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A juxtaposition of holiday signs on Route 23, Valley Forge Road, in an area where more Jews reside. Photo by Carin M. Smilk
When Kate Nolt moved from Baltimore to the Chester County suburbs more than a decade ago with her boyfriend, it turned out to be a dramatic change.
 
"I had culture shock, coming from Baltimore, with 100,000 Jews on every corner, to Chester County, where I could go into a grocery store and barely even find Chanukah candles," said Nolt.
 
"I would oftentimes go to look for traditional-type items and would really have to go from store to store to find them. Or they were scarce, and the stores would only order a handful, and if I was too late, I was out of luck."
 
The area, as she put it bluntly, was"devoid of Jews."
 
That's hardly the case today.
 
According to the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia," conducted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Chester County has seen one of the region's biggest population increases. It has nearly doubled, growing from 10,100 Jews in 1996/97, when the last population study was done, to a current estimated number of 20,900 -- representing about 10 percent of the five-county area's Jews.
 
Back in 1984, the county's estimated Jewish population stood at about 5,000.
 
Granted, the growth in Chester County still seems small compared to the number of Jewish families who reside in Center City, Northeast Philadelphia and Montgomery County. The increase more readily echoes the Jewish population that's been steadily growing in Bucks County, which was also mainly rural in the 1980s.
 
But despite this marked uptick in numbers, there appears to be a general consensus that the county still lacks a cohesive Jewish feeling.
Chester County resident Kate Nolt
 
Some of this lack of cohesion is due to sheer geography. The six synagogues in the country are spread out among distances of 30 and 40 miles in what was once rural countryside. Even today, many roads are one-lane, horses still graze outside farmhouses, and old stone inns dot Lancaster Avenue, Route 30, once the only way -- the main line -- to Center City.
 
Why They Came
 
According to Susannah Brody, the author of the recently published Remembering Chester County: Stories From Valley Forge to Coatesville, Jews came to Chester County in the early 20th century for the same reasons they went anywhere -- seeking opportunity. Many, she said, were merchants, vendors or itinerant peddlers, who often gathered in individual homes for Shabbat or High Holiday services.
 
The area's first synagogues sprung up. Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester was established in 1914, while Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County in Eagle was incorporated two years later at its initial home in Coatesville.
 
Families that kept kosher in the early days -- and even in the middle -- of the 20th century had to drive to West Philadelphia for kosher meat and other Jewish delicacies, though after World War II, some kosher butchers began delivering to the Chester County area. Prior to that, a shochet, a kosher ritual slaughterer, would come to various homes and slaughter chickens and other fowl, according to residents of the area at the time.
 
Back then, it seemed that "each of the communities kept to themselves" because they were so geographically separated, according to Bill Chertok, an 81-year-old native of the region who ran a furniture business in Coatesville.
 
This is understandable, since then as now, Chester County is spread out over 760 square miles, which range from the far western Main Line down to the Delaware state line. Jewish residents tend to be sprinkled from the King of Prussia/ Valley Forge area to the west along the Route 202 business corridor, with pockets in Wayne, Berwyn, Malvern, Phoenixville and West Chester.
The cover of Susannah Brody's book on the history of the county; she's lived there for nearly four decades and raised her family Jewishly.
 
Changes in Membership
 
In addition to being the fastest-growing Jewish population, Chester County has the highest percentage of intermarriage -- 40 percent -- of the five counties studied, according to the population study. It held that distinction in the previous study from the late 1990s as well. It also has the highest percentage of children under the age of 18 -- 48 percent -- in Jewish homes, meaning many of the families are younger.
 
Kate Nolt's family supports the data. She eventually married her boyfriend, Charlie. He took a job in Exton, while she started working in King of Prussia. The two rented an apartment in Thorndale -- the end of the R5 train line -- an area that "was kind of where we could afford to live and geographically desirable," she said.
 
While Nolt's husband is not Jewish, the couple is raising their three children -- ages 3 to 19 -- Jewishly. The family belongs to Beth Chaim Reform Congregation in Malvern, where Nolt is also the membership chair. It took a while for them to formally join the synagogue, she said, having first visited others in the area.
 
For a long time, the congregation met in a church, until the completion of a brand-new building in 2007. The synagogue had a gala event just last month to celebrate its 18th year.
 
Nolt said that despite the increasing number of Jews, it takes personal initiative to find Jewish community. "The Chester County synagogues do not do the job that they could," she said. "I think they could do a much better job of reaching out."
 
A few towns over, at the Conservative Beth Israel Congregation in Eagle, Rabbi Michael Charney said that his synagogue, while always welcoming to interfaith families, has made certain concessions in recent years to include non-Jewish spouses.
 
While non-Jews are still prohibited from having an aliyah, the congregation now lets Jewish members' spouses join them on the bimah for the aliyah, said Charney, the county's longest-serving rabbi, having arrived at Beth Israel in 1985.
 
When the congregation moved from Coatesville into its current bucolic facility in the mid-1990s, the rabbi said the congregation even got permission from the appropriate national governing bodies to allow non-Jewish spouses to join their Sisterhood and Men's Club.
 
Today, he said, more than 40 percent of the children in the preschool come from blended families.
 
Brody, the author, who is not Jewish, has lived in the area for nearly four decades. She recalled that when she and her Jewish husband first arrived, it wasn't the most welcoming place for interfaith families. Her family -- including three grown sons raised Jewishly -- are longtime members of Kesher Israel in West Chester.
 
Growing up in Exton, she said, her kids had maybe one or two Jewish friends at school, though she said that they never had too much trouble, other than the occasional run-in with ignorance.
 
These days, Brody and her husband live in an "Over 55" community in Coatesville, where there are only about 15 Jewish families out of 300, she said, but she noted that she's seen growth in the area, as young families relocate for good schools and more affordable housing, sometimes even followed by their parents.
 
In the past 20 years, Kesher Israel's membership has nearly doubled -- going from about 180 member families to roughly 340.
 
Other synagogues, such as Beth Chaim, have also grown, from about 10 member families when first established in 1992, to 110 in 2001; the congregation has doubled since then to about 215.
 
On the flip side, over at Congregation B'nai Jacob in Phoenixville, Rabbi Rachel Brown said that while she has noticed Jewish growth in the overall community, that has not extended to her congregation, a Conservative synagogue with about 155 member families.
 
One significant addition to the religious landscape has been Chabad Lubavitch of Chester County and the Western Main Line in Devon, which Rabbi Yossi Kaplan and his wife, Tickey, have run for the past 12 years.
 
Kaplan's center is, for all practical purposes, the only Orthodox presence in the region. It has jump-started some new traditions, such as an annual Chanukah menorah-lighting at the Exton Square Mall, and actively worked to help put up a 10-foot menorah -- now there on an annual basis -- in front of the Chester County Courthouse.
 
A Sense of Cohesion
 
Many interviewed for this story said that the Jewish population increase has been apparent to those already involved in Jewish life.
 
For instance, kosher food, which was once impossible to find, is more readily available with the rise of large-scale supermarkets, such as Genuardis, Wegmans and Trader Joe's.
 
Currently, there's only one kosher eatery in the area: JJ Elephant, a sports Internet cafe in Chester Springs that stakes its claim as the county's only kosher-certified establishment.
 
There's no lack of trying among communal organizations and workers to build more of a sense of cohesion among the region's Jews.
 
Shelley Rappaport is the director of the Kehillah of Chester County, a collaboration of area congregations and Jewish agencies that works on creating programs, events, educational experiences and service opportunities for Jewish residents.
 
While the Kehillah used to rent office space in Chester County, it now works out of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Schwartz campus in Bryn Mawr.
 
"We take our show on the road," explained Rappaport, who has overseen Chester County for about seven years. "We do public-space programming, in places like the Wegmans in Downingtown, the AC Moore in Downington or the Paoli hardware store."
 
A more recent endeavor has been the family-oriented Pajama-Rama, a children's storytime and snack event held at the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Valley Fair shopping center, where the old Valley Forge Music Fair used to be held. The event is geared toward unaffiliated and interfaith families.
 
Federation and the Kehillah have made other efforts to form a more cohesive county by bringing the congregations together for events such as a community Selichot service to kick off the High Holidays and a menorah-lighting event slated for this week at the Chester County Historical Society.
 
While the distances and funding remain stumbling blocks, "I'd say the fact that we have the Kehillah system has led to more collaboration between the synagogues than we've ever had before," said Glen Paskow, the current Kehillah chair for Chester County.
Rabbi Rachel Brown
 
"Those of us that are involved with Federation have a very clear sense that we are part of the Greater Philadelphia Jewish community," said B'nai Jacob's Rabbi Rachel Brown. "But for people that aren't involved with Federation, I wouldn't even call it a disconnect because there wasn't ever even a connection; it's a nonconnect."
 
Brown has been on the pulpit at the Phoenixville shul for five years now.
 
After attending rabbinical school in Los Angeles, she said that she's used to getting in the car and driving long distances to get places, but for many in her congregation, she attested that Philadelphia proper seems very far away.
 
State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-District 19) and his wife Margo first moved to the county in 1972 so he could take a faculty position at West Chester University.
 
The two-term senator was first elected to public office in 1975, when he joined the Downingtown Area School Board, and has served in various positions since before being elected to the Senate in 2006.
 
Dinniman, who grew up in New Haven, Conn., said that when he first arrived, the Jewish community was concentrated in only a few locales, like West Chester, Downingtown and Coatesville, but that today, Jewish families and individuals are now spread through the county. That's made the community less insular, even as the diffusion has made cohesion more challenging.
 
In Chester, he said, an area is Jewish if three out of 40 families belong to the tribe. Long involved with Jewish communal life -- he currently serves on the board of the Chester Kehillah -- Dinniman observed that, if anything, he thinks the population study undercounted the number of Jews, as well as the number of intermarried families, in the county.
 
"We are the youngest Jewish community, perhaps between Washington and New York, and perhaps the largest in terms interfaith marriage, and there is more need to come up with innovative approaches," he said. "The paradox is: How do you maintain a Jewish presence in a large area where there is no concentration -- no specific concentration of Jewish people?"
 
Philadelphia's Stepchild
 
Despite population growth and the efforts at community-building, many Jews in the region tend to stay separate, unless brought together by a particular event, holiday or synagogue gathering.
 
Paskow, the county's Kehillah chair, remarked that while synagogues have gotten more help and funding from Federation in the last five or 10 years, "there definitely has always been a feeling that Chester County was the stepchild, and the center of Judaism was Philadelphia. And for many years, Chester County was basically ignored."
 
Rappaport took issue with that idea, responding that for more than 20 years, Federation and other agencies have offered an array of services to synagogues and Jewish families in the county.
 
(The Kehillah of Chester County, long run by Federation, is now overseen by the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education/Jewish Outreach Partnership, though Federation still provides the funding.)
 
"We are making every effort to make sure the synagogues are taking advantage of all that we have to offer," said Rappaport.
 
But Paskow opined that those who live in the still heavily pastoral region -- and other areas set off from the traditional urban centers of Jewish life, which here in Philadelphia seem to be grouped around Lower Merion, the Old York Road corridor and the upper reaches of the Northeast -- may have different priorities.
 
"It seems like the closer you are to the city, the more observant and committed Jews are," said Paskow. "It sort of self-selects -- if walking to synagogue is important to you, you wouldn't live in Chester County." 

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