There have been Jews in Franklin County, Pa. since 1784 when, according to hand-written records, Aaron Levi lived here. In the early 1830s, Daniel Neumann, a peddler left Philadelphia and ended up in Waynesboro, a town in Franklin County about 11 miles away from Chambersburg, the county seat. His descendants still live in the area.
By 1837, records indicate there were at least a dozen Jewish families living in the county, most were trades people. In fact there were enough Jews to start an Israelite Benevolent Society and a Hevrah Kadishah – a burial society – in 1840. They purchased land for a cemetery and moved a number of graves to the newly consecrated grounds. The society was, according to records, the first congregation established west of Philadelphia and a historical marker has been placed at the congregation’s “old cemetery,” on East Washington Street in Chambersburg, noting that fact. In the cemetery are at least one and possibly two graves for Confederate soldiers killed during the battle of Antietam, which is also noted on the historical marker.
Until World War I, the number of Jewish residents in Franklin County was so small there was no formally organized Jewish community, except for the burial society. The religious needs of the community were met by itinerant rabbis, shochtim (kosher butchers), student rabbis from New York and from the limited resources of the local Jews. For years there was no synagogue and Jews met in homes to observe High Holy Days, festivals, Bar Mitzvah ceremonies and other occasions.
Then on March 25, 1919, The court of Franklin County granted a charter of incorporation for the county’s first – and only – synagogue. Two months later, the congregation bought a building on West Washington Street in Chambersburg, for use as a synagogue and Hebrew School. Services were also held in the building and for the next 20 years, the Jewish community grew as organized religious life began to flourish.
The congregation still has the minutes of the burial society and the board of the new congregation. Written in Yiddish, the minutes were translated into English by members of the congregation and constitute a written history of Jews of the area.
In 1939, the congregation purchased a building located at the northeast corner of the interesection of King and Second Street. The building had belonged to the King Street Evangelical United Brethren Church, which moved across the street into a new structure.
In 1940 a Mennonite resident of Chambersburg, as a “token of his affection for the Children of Israel,” and as a “gift to God” hand crafted and installed the Ark that holds the synagogue Torahs to this day. The Ark was made without the benefit of a single machine tool and is part of an entire wall of decorations at the back of the building which he constructed.
For many years the synagogue provided religious education for its children through parents and members of the community as well as rabbis. In 1946, Cantor Samuel Tobey came to town and organized a formal and fully-operating Hebrew and Sunday School.
Over the years, the congregation has had full-time rabbis, but as children of members of the congregation left for college or moved out of town and many members retired or died, a full-time rabbi was replaced with student rabbis who come in at least twice a month to make sure religious study and religious services continue.
We are still the only congregation in Franklin, Fulton, Adams and southern Cumberland counties in South Central Pennsylvania. As such, we are non-affiliated with any specific movement, but rather try to meet the needs of all Jews in the area. We do keep our kitchen kosher (dairy) to make sure those who keep kashrut will be welcome in our building.
For more information about the congregation, services or religious school, contact us through our website or by calling us at 717-264-2915.