At the recent centennial fete of the Jewish Community Center in Harrisburg, the influence that the Jewish community has had on the city was celebrated, exemplifying the dynamism of the community that it has existed in for over 175 years.
The original Jewish settlers arrived in Harrisburg in the 1840s, primarily from Germany and England, presumably drawn to the area for the opportunities presented by the growing city and the spiritual freedom found in Pennsylvania. Assembling for religious services led by Lazarus Bernhard, the group founded the first synagogue in the city, Ohev Sholom, as an Orthodox house of worship until 1867 when it adopted Reform. Other congregations that formed in the ensuing years include: Chisuk Emuna (1884), now a Traditional Conservative congregation; Kesher Israel (1902), the leading Orthodox institution in Central Pennsylvania; Temple Beth El (1926), egalitarian Conservative; and Machzikei Hadas (1904), now known as Chabad-Lubavitch, which is Hasidic.
Blending with the population of the city, Harrisburg’s Jewish business leaders experienced success that often eluded their counterparts in Europe due, in large part, to no restrictions – either social or governmental – that existed here. The successes and the corresponding financial rewards of their labors enabled many to enjoy a gratifying standard of living and a fundamental desire to repay their community for their good providence.
Harrisburg’s Jewish community consisted of less than 600 citizens as late as 1905 but increased dramatically over the next 10 years with the flood of immigrants escaping the poverty and oppression experienced in the Russian Empire, primarily in Lithuania. Known as the Pale of Settlement, the Jews residing there were prohibited from living beyond its borders by the czars. By the 1920s, the now larger population had settled into the city with the growth of various Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Hasidic congregations greatly expanding their original memberships. The older German families tended to identify with the Reform movement and the eastern Europeans associated with the Orthodox branch.
This exodus from Eastern Europe – at the time, possibly the greatest population shift in Jewish history – had an impact on many cities in the northeast, radiating from the primary debarkation point of New York.
With the increased Jewish population in Harrisburg, the need for purveyors of goods required for observance of religious laws and customs gave further rise to the merchant class in the city. And, with the increasing population, the need for religious instruction and education became critical for the community.
Yeshiva Academy, a day school established to provide both religious and secular education for Jewish children, was established and was one of the first Jewish day schools in the country outside of a major metropolitan area. The Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) of Harrisburg was founded in 1915, changing its name to the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in 1941. The United Jewish Community, founded in 1933, was consolidated with the JCC in 2002 to form the Jewish Federation of Greater Harrisburg.
The social consciousness of the Jewish community and the need to provide services for their members gave rise to a number of institutions and facilities distinct from other public facilities administered by local and state governing bodies. These specifically Jewish services – among which include the Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Group Home, the Jewish Home and the Residence (a senior living facility) – exist as parallels to similar local public/governmental services but are funded almost exclusively by the Jewish community.
Ever-expanding opportunities attracted, and created, entrepreneurs in the Jewish community who creatively applied their skills to new business prospects. David Javitch, starting with a single meat market in Carlisle in 1923, grew his enterprise into the GIANT Food Stores chain. Alex Grass, noticing an absence of stores offering health and beauty aids at competitive prices, established his first store, the Thrif D Discount Center in Scranton in 1951. Changing its name in 1968 to Rite-Aid, it had become the nation’s largest drugstore chain, in terms of total stores, by the time that Grass stepped down as CEO in 1995. Morris Schwab led D&H Distributing, which began as a small business retreading tires in 1918 to become one of the leading distributors of information technology and consumer electronics in America. And, success wasn’t limited to Jewish men. Mary Sachs, the businesswoman who was named “the merchant princess” by U.S. Senator Edward Martin and was described as “remarkable” by Eleanor Roosevelt, operated the leading ladies fashion store in the city. She was a Lithuanian émigré, arriving in the city at the age of 4.
Financial and social success notwithstanding, a common thread has coursed through the fabric of the Jewish community of Harrisburg ever since those first settlers arrived at the beginning of the 19th Century – philanthropy.
Few groups, either religious or secular, have the record for philanthropy that the Jewish community has in Pennsylvania’s capital city and the surrounding region.
For example, Rite-Aid’s Alex Grass has a legacy that includes the $14.5 million medical building named for him at Harrisburg Hospital and the $1.5 million he gave to establish the Alex Grass School of Business Leadership at Harrisburg Area Community College, among others. The Mary Sachs Memorial Scholarship Fund honors its namesake, who said in a 1960 interview: “I am a collector of helping. It makes me feel more alive.” Her statement, made in the same year that she died at the age of 72, perhaps reflects in microcosmic form a statement made by John F. Kennedy at approximately the same time: “The raising of extraordinarily large sums of money, given voluntarily and freely by millions of our fellow Americans, is a unique American tradition. Philanthropy, charity, giving voluntarily and freely, call it what you like, but it is truly a jewel of an American tradition.”
If anything, philanthropy is one of the major and truly significant activities of the Harrisburg Jewish community. In a survey, nearly 70 percent of respondents said that they contributed to Jewish charities and 74 percent said that they contributed to non-Jewish charities. Looking at the figures and considering the dollars involved brings to mind a quote from Bill Gates: “Effective philanthropy requires a lot of time and creativity – the same kind of focus and skills that building a business requires.”
Entrepreneur published an in-depth article entitled “Elements of a Business Plan” not long ago, and none of the elements includes philanthropy as a component. Apparently, they haven’t spent much time in Harrisburg.