Judaism Hangs on at Synagogue in Rural Pennsylvania

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It started in Chambersburg in 1840 when a group of Jewish men established a burial society — a small cemetery with a building to prepare bodies for burials — and a house for a visiting rabbi where they held services.

Congregation Sons of Israel (Photo by Heather M. Ross)

By 1919, Congregation Sons of Israel applied for and received nonprofit status as a religious organization. And for the 103 years since, the synagogue has served as the center of Jewish life in the small (population of about 21,000), rural town of Chambersburg, about 25 miles northeast of Gettysburg in south-central Pennsylvania.

The closest synagogue has a part-time rabbi and is nearly 25 miles away and across the Maryland state line; the next closest is 35 miles away.


“My parents moved to Chambersburg when I was 4 years old. I was the second girl ever bat mitzvahed at the synagogue,” said Lynne Newman, the religious director and ritual chair.

While the congregation was larger in the past, the synagogue remains an important symbol to local Jews, and the congregation has undeniably shaped Chambersburg, which got its start as a milling town in 1730 and was burned by Confederate forces in 1864.

“When I was younger, if you missed three days (of school), you’d be considered a truant. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were considered truancy,” Newman said. “A group of merchants and our rabbi went to the school district and got that changed. They’re still not official, but you’re no longer truant. Those three days mean you can’t have perfect attendance.”

Jews have never had a major presence in Chambersburg but, for the most part, the community has welcomed, embraced and supported Franklin County’s only synagogue.

“When the Pittsburgh attack happened, I organized a memorial service, and 400 or 500 people came. People left flowers at the doors of our synagogue and wrote letters,” Newman said, referencing the antisemitic terrorist attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in 2018.

Congregation Sons of Israel (Photo by Heather M. Ross)

The largest religious population in Chambersburg is Christianity, and the majority of the town is politically conservative. According to Pennsylvania Department of State voter registration statistics, Franklin County has about 61,000 registered Republicans compared to 24,000 Democrats.

“This is an exceptionally conservative area. When my parents moved to Chambersburg, my father, who had been a lifelong Democrat, registered as a Republican because in Chambersburg if you wanted to do business you had to be Republican — it was just that conservative of an area,” Newman said.

New arrivals seldom change Chambersburg, according to Newman. Chambersburg changes them.

“Chambersburg as a whole is not bad; there are antisemites here, as there are everywhere. Since Trump, they’ve become more overt,” she said.

The most striking antisemitism Newman encountered in Chambersburg happened when she was in ninth grade at the since-closed Central Junior High School.

Newman was in health class, raising her hand and answering questions when her teacher scolded her about the way she answered, despite all students responding in the same manner.

“He said, ‘This is not one of your Jewish prayer meetings,’” Newman recalled.

When Newman asked for an apology, she was sent to the principal’s office, where she explained what happened to a relatively unconcerned administration. For the next three days, instead of going to health class, she went to the office, where she stayed until the teacher apologized.

“Other than that, I’ve had no trouble at all, not with anybody or anything. It struck me even as I was married and grew up. Most people respected me as long as I went to services and practiced my religion,” Newman said.

The synagogue is an important reminder for Chambersburg of religious diversity and the importance of interfaith cooperation.

“When I graduated high school, there were four Jews in my graduating class,” Newman said, so when her children were growing up, she made an effort to help educate the community about Jewish life.

“When my kids were growing up, I went into schools for Christmas and Easter to talk about Chanukah and Passover. I’d bring in food and games. I’d talk to them. And the teachers were all willing to do that,” she said.

A young congregant in Chambersburg (Courtesy of Congregation Sons of Israel)

According to Newman, the interfaith movement has an undeniable presence, even in Chambersburg.

“We get calls from different churches [with people] asking to come to our synagogue and observe a service. We have a ministerium that was started by one of our rabbis and a minister from a Presbyterian church. They did a Holocaust service; for a long time, it was held at different churches and occasionally at the synagogue. For the past 15 years or so, it has almost always been at our synagogue. The participation is interfaith with different churches in the area. We light memorial candles and have different readers,” Newman said.

The interfaith movement also plays a role in how the small synagogue raises money.

“We have [a few] different fundraisers. One is our Jewish Heritage Food Festival; we have the food festivals twice a year. Christians from all over come to these food festivals. The women of the synagogue do the cooking and [we] take stuff home with us. You come in, donate all the food and pay for a meal. People come, they like the food, they try different things. We take people upstairs, and show them our sanctuary. It’s a way to reach the community,” Newman said.

“It shows people we aren’t scary. It’s hard to hate something that you understand,” she said.

The synagogue has hosted Friday night services and invited different area churches to send representatives. Those services typically end with a question-and-answer period.

Garry Kipe, a pastor in Chambersburg for more than 20 years at the Bethel Assembly of God Church, said that, overall, Chambersburg is not familiar with Judaism.

But he believes that other Christians and Americans can learn from Judaism.

“Their value, how they esteem the Torah, they just highly esteem the word of God, and it really spoke to me and challenged me, that wow, we need to really respect what we hold in our hands, the Bible. And a lot of people in America don’t really realize what they hold. They (Jewish people) take it seriously,” Kipe said.

Every year on Christmas, Jews and other volunteers make Christmas dinner to help the local Chambersburg Salvation Army. The collaboration between faiths has been a tradition there since 1986 and provides Christmas dinners for hundreds of people in the area every year.

“I’ve invited choirs, ministers, Santa and his elves. It’s not my holiday, but I want them to have a good one,” Newman said.

Despite the rich history and deep community ties, the synagogue is struggling. It has shrunken to about 20-25 families, which is problematic.

“Most of our members were older, and they passed on. All the other kids went to college and never came back. A lot of the kids growing up in the synagogue didn’t come back as adults, they didn’t come back to Chambersburg. Most Jews in Chambersburg are not affiliated. They may have married a Christian,” Newman said. “We are losing the next generation.”

“My grandson will be 8 in September. I want it (the synagogue) to be there for him to be bar mitzvahed, but I don’t know if we’ll make it,” Newman said.

The bimah of Congregation Sons of Israel in Chambersburg (Courtesy of Congregation Sons of Israel)

Jessica Doubell, the board president at Congregation Sons of Israel, said, “It’s very important for there to still be a Jewish presence in Chambersburg. We are in such an area that is predominantly Christian. When I was growing up, not a lot of people knew what Jews were. It’s very important for everybody to keep an open mind about the world, and remember that it’s not the same everywhere you go.”

Doubell cherishes the synagogue’s community, noting that even members who no longer attend stay connected via the mailing list. The history the synagogue shares with the Chambersburg community is only part of why it’s so special to Doubell, who grew up in the synagogue attending services and playing hide-and-seek with the rabbi’s son.

While the congregation has shrunken, it remains deeply connected to Chambersburg and Judaism, with members looking forward to every Friday.

“Without the Chambersburg synagogue, the next closest is so far away, it would really cut off those who want to go to services and be part of the Jewish community. I don’t have time to go to Harrisburg,” Doubell said.

The synagogue is looking to hire a new part-time rabbi, as the previous part-time rabbi left for a new position. Rabbi Dr. Samuel Richardson, who works for the Jewish National Fund as the director of small community outreach, is serving during the High Holidays, then staying on through Sukkot. JE

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