When parents live far from their adult children, grandchildren from grandparents, or friends far removed from one another, we find in Brith Sholom a “place to come home to.” What kind of place is this Jewish community, located as it is in what is nationally recognized as the Christmas City? How does the light of the Moravian star of the city’s 18th century founders resonate with our own star of David? Who or what made this possible?
From the start, we have been a collection of individuals. Brith Sholom is not centered on any one person; it is people working together to build something special. It began with the founding in 1890 of a congregation made up of Eastern European immigrants who set up shops and boarding houses to serve the burgeoning population of Bethlehem Steel workers, themselves immigrants. These early Jewish merchants “spoke the language” of their customers. Like them, they worked hard to provide new opportunities for their children.
With their children in mind, in the 1920s, the Jewish families pooled their funds to construct a “daring” foundation for the future, the Brith Sholom Community Center, located at the edge of Lehigh University’s campus but at the geographic center of the neighborhoods in which the Jewish families lived amongst the general population, many of whom remember learning to swim at the Center’s pool, which was open to the community; that bulwark building still stands.
Image at the Left: The “Star of Bethlehem” watches from the mountain to the south, overlooking the city.
In the years that followed, declining fortunes of “The Steel,” as it is called, and rising social unrest likely contributed to the acts of arson that threatened the facility. But the community persevered and rebuilt. By the 1980s, it was evident, however, that a move was necessary and the community broke ground for the current building, located at Jacksonville and Macada Roads, conveniently near newer housing and the, at the time recently, opened Highway 22, which connects with the Lehigh Valley’s other cities. That proved a good decision, as the congregation was again able to build, this time adding a second social hall and other amenities, which have enabled the celebration of many simchas.
Rabbi Michael Singer, who came to lead Brith Sholom in 2014, says of the community, “We treasure what is past and look forward to a bright future.”
For more details, read on; history lovers will enjoy the additional links at the bottom of this page!
1889-1940: The Early Years
In 1889, a group of Jewish families in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, joined together to build a synagogue and, in 1897, construction of Brith Sholom Talmud Tora was completed. By the 1920s, Bethlehem was home to nearly 200 Jewish families. A small group of visionary leaders then developed and carried out plans to build a new building that would house both the synagogue and a community center. Situated prominently at the corner of Brodhead and Packer Avenues, the Brith Sholom Community Center contained a 600-seat sanctuary, a social hall, a gymnasium, swimming pool, library, dining room, classrooms, chapel and lounges. The synagogue hired an ordained rabbi and a full-time director. The Community Center thrived until 1929, when the Great Depression ended years of prosperity.
The 1940s brought worldwide death and destruction in the form of World War II and the Holocaust. In 1948, when the Jewish people established a new homeland in Israel, the Bethlehem Jewish community demonstrated its solidarity and support for Israel and Diaspora Jews through rallies, United Jewish Appeal campaigns, and Israel Bond drives. In the years following the war, as Americans once again grew strong and prospered, so did the Community Center, under the leadership of Rabbi William Frankel (1953-1964).
Major renovations undertaken in the early 1960s enabled the Community Center to serve the needs of its members for another two decades. On December 21, 1970, not long after the renovations were completed, burglars broke into the Center and set fire to the building, gutting the offices and destroying many artifacts and records. The damage was repaired and a gala series of events heralded the 50th anniversary of the Brith Sholom Community Center.
In 1955, Rabbi Frankel wrote the “History of early Jewish community of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.” It appeared in the Brith Sholom Community Center 30th anniversary year book. The history begins with the earliest Jewish settlers and concludes with the erection of the first permanent synagogue building in 1897. To read Rabbi Frankel’s history, please click here.
Rabbi Allen Juda came to lead the congregation in 1975, at a time when both the local economy and the growth in the local Jewish
population had begun to slow.
The need for the Community Center came into question and, in 1983, the congregation sold the Community Center building to Lehigh University, where it now is called “Mohler Lab” (image at right), which houses the physics department, among others.
Included in the sale agreement was a 5.6-acre wooded lot on the corner of Jacksonville and Macada Roads, which, in 1986, became the new home of Congregation Brith Sholom.
A new century has brought with it new changes, and after 39 years of religious and communal leadership by Rabbi Allen Juda and currently with the vibrant Rabbi Michael Singer, Congregation Brith Sholom continues to grow and thrive. Increasing numbers of congregants attending Shabbat and holiday services, and well-attended social, educational, and cultural programs and events led to a renewed need for the synagogue to expand its physical structure, programming, and activities. The culmination of a successful fundraising campaign in 2001 not only made possible this expansion, with additions to the social hall, kitchen, and parking areas, but also strengthened the synagogue, providing for continued growth for future generations through a substantial contribution to the synagogue’s Endowment Fund.
Image at Left: A few stained glass windows remain at Mohler Lab, Lehigh University, reminding us of what the building used to be: The Brith Sholom Community Center.
To see a detailed history of Brith Sholom from 1964 to 1976 please click.