‘It was the oldest continuously in-use synagogue in the United States’: Jewish history tour chronicles more than a century of change in Easton – The…

Posted By on May 29, 2022

Some of the stone foundation is all that remains of the first synagogue in Easton, now an empty lot on Sixth Street overgrown with high grass and weeds.

Standing in the nearby alley, where stray cats meandered near the weather-worn remnant earlier this month, Sarah White resurrected some of its history.

When it was at this location, the English version is Temple Covenant of Peace. The Hebrew translation is Brith Shalom, said White, community engagement coordinator for the Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Society. And while this synagogue was at this location, it was here for 117 years. It was the oldest continuously in-use synagogue in the United States.

The original foundation of a synagogue is visible Thursday, May 11, 2022, on a now-empty lot in Easton. (Rick Kintzel/The Morning Call)

While the building is gone, eventually sold to a Baptist church before a 1990s fire reduced it to rubble, the lot is one of more than 20 stops on the Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Societys virtual tour of Eastons Jewish history. Launched in honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, the tour proceeds chronologically, encompassing the citys downtown between Scott Park and Sixth Street, and includes images, citations and sources.

Easton is in no way unusual in the conversations that weve been having for 300 or 400 years, White said. We really want to emphasize that history is not really history, because it never ends. . . . We very much want the public, any visitors and community members to know that your story is just as important as what you would go to a museum to read.

The tour shows how the city has changed over more than a century of expansion, development and cultural transformation for Jewish residents, illustrating the split between Reform and Conservative ideologies that fueled two separate congregations in the city for decades.

Broadly speaking, Conservative congregations are more likely to observe kosher dietary restrictions and use more Hebrew and less English in their services than those who identify as Reform. Reform Judaism highly values social justice, and while Conservative Judaism does as well, it places more emphasis on traditional Jewish law, guiding religious belief and aspects of daily life.

It was only recently that both congregations came together, citing a decline in membership. Temple Covenant of Peace, a Reform congregation, was founded in 1839. Bnai Abraham, a Conservative synagogue, came decades after, but before the turn of the century.

Easton hit a high of more than 35,000 residents in 1950, when memberships in the synagogue peaked, and dipped nu almost 10,000 in subsequent decades. A 2007 demographic study completed by the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley showed 8,050 Jews live in 4,000 Jewish households across the region, meaning 2% of the Lehigh Valley is Jewish, making it the third-largest community in the state.

In August 2020, Eastons two congregations merged, bringing together about 160 families and becoming Bnai Shalom in the 1500 block of Bushkill Street.

Because of the pandemic, we have been obviously stymied in our coming together as a community, said Rabbi Melody Davis of Bnai Shalom. And now we are beginning to make those wonderful steps as a community that weve been unable to because of the pandemic.

Finally, we are now having in-person services.

Davis said one of the biggest hurdles for the congregations was selling the building that held Temple Covenant of Peace, just a few blocks away on Northampton Street, adding theres memories in the walls, and that really tore the heart out of a lot of people.

People are coming, and they are joining and its just a blessing, Melody said. Were kind of a wonderful mix of old and new, and experimentation.

And that mixture can be traced through the historical societys tour.

Before that first Sixth Street synagogue was built in the mid-1800s and modeled after synagogue in northern Italy life for Jewish residents, many of them from Germany, included no formal congregation, rabbi or house of worship, said White. Instead, a traveling rabbi would split their time between New York and the Valley.

Then the synagogue was built, a hulking brick building with red accents and a centered Star of David, she said. Around this same time, Jews from what is now Latvia, Poland, Ukraine and Lithuania began settling in the area.


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This is where, in my opinion, this gets to be fascinating because a lot of discussions that we have today about acculturation and adaptation and the tensions between the old world and the new world we see that playing out within these two segments of the Jewish community, White said, noting that German Jews were more Americanized, while the next wave was more traditional in dress, food and language, many speaking Yiddish.

The tensions that are happening between these two sects of the community, I think, really speak to a lot of the issues that were still discussing today, White said.

Breaking from the Reformed Jews at Temple Covenant of Peace, a Conservative group created Bnai Abraham in 1888. The building where they worshiped, another brick structure on South Sixth Street, has since been shuttered, and is in disrepair. The congregation had outgrown it, moving to Bushkill Street in the mid-1960s.

An synagogue built in 1906 is pictured Thursday, May 11, 2022, along Sixth Street in Easton. (Rick Kintzel/The Morning Call)

And its not too long after the Reformed congregation moves as well, White said. And, ironically, theyre right down the street from each other here and theyre just about right down the street from each other over there as well.

Although they split over ideologies, religious leaders decided to merge in order to just keep their community alive, White said.

And this is one of the things that I find so fascinating and refreshing, is that even after all of this tension and cultural conflict, that both synagogues they sit down they had always been close regardless but they sit down with each other, White explained. They dialogue and they decide how they want to move forward to ensure that, as theyve been asking themselves for 150 years, how do we adapt to continue to survive?

Morning Call reporter Molly Bilinski can be reached at mbilinski@mcall.com.


'It was the oldest continuously in-use synagogue in the United States': Jewish history tour chronicles more than a century of change in Easton - The...

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