Lehigh Valley

views updated


LEHIGH VALLEY , a region in southeastern Pennsylvania, U.S., encompassing the cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton in the Pennsylvania counties of Lehigh and Northampton; general population estimated at 650,000 (2005); Jewish population estimated at 8,000. The majority of the Jewish community presently resides in Allentown.

Believed to be the first Jews to pass through the Lehigh Valley, members of the newly arrived Jewish community of New Amsterdam, Isaac Israel and Benjamin Cardozo, received authority in 1655 to trade with the native Indians along the upper Delaware River. The settlement of Jews in the Lehigh Valley begins when Myer Hart, a trader of Spanish-Portuguese ancestry, appears on a list of Easton's founders in 1750. Although one of the wealthier of Easton's first citizens, Hart left Easton by 1790 after he suffered financial reverses during the Revolution. The first Jewish cemetery was purchased by Michael Hart (unrelated) from the Penn family in the 1790s. Hart was sufficiently prominent that he received George Washington on his visit to Easton in the 1780s. Despite a large Hart family, there is no record of a permanent Jewish community in Easton until the late 1830s.

Allentown's earliest record of Jews includes a 1760 land purchase by Mordecai Moses Mordecai from James Allen, son of the founder of Allentown. Permanent Jewish settlement began in Allentown in 1847. Until the 1840s, Bethlehem was restricted only to Moravians.

The canal and railroad boom of the 1830s and 1840s attracted a small number of German-Jewish immigrants, mainly to Easton, where the oldest Jewish congregation in the Lehigh Valley (and the tenth oldest synagogue in the United States), Covenant of Peace, was founded in 1839. Over the next 40 years additional immigrants, mostly from Germany and Hungary, found their way to all three Valley cities. These Jewish immigrants may have been attracted to the region by the many German-speaking residents already in the Lehigh Valley as well as by its advantageous location for trade at the confluence of the Delaware and Lehigh rivers.

The arrival of the Eastern European Jews in the 1880s saw the near-simultaneous founding of new synagogues in all three cities. With World War i and immigration restrictions, new migration came to an end. In the 1920s the communities prospered, attracting Jews who had initially settled in Philadelphia and New York. In the 1930s, the communities sponsored a small number of refugees from Nazi persecution and, after the war, survivors of the Holocaust. In the period from about 1950 to 2000 expansion of higher education, high-tech industries, and medical centers attracted more Jewish professionals to the Lehigh Valley. In the 1990s, with the end of the Cold War, the Jewish community resettled a new stream of Jews from the former Soviet Union.

The earliest Jews were peddlers and traders, many later opening general stores. Their knowledge of German and Yiddish was welcomed by the predominance of the Pennsylvania German-Dutch residents. Throughout most of the 20th century, Jewish-owned apparel, fur, shoe, jewelry, and furniture stores lined the downtown streets of all three cities. The most prominent was Allentown's Hess's Department Store, a landmark in the Lehigh Valley for over 100 years.

Many Lehigh Valley Jews entered the textile manufacturing business, silk and knit goods primarily. The local garment and textile industries flourished through most of the 20th century, generating wealth that created a cadre of Jewish philanthropists who became prominent in building Jewish organizations and institutions.

In the second half of the 20th century, Jewish entrepreneurs entered new lines of manufacturing as well as publishing, helping to diversify the Lehigh Valley economy and to adjust to the decline of the textile industry and heavy manufacturing. These firms, still very much in business today, include Day-Timers, Rodale Press, Just Born Candies, Lutron Electronics, and mcs Industries.

As each community grew in size, it created an array of institutions that filled social, education, cultural, and recreational needs – in addition to its synagogues. In the early decades of the 20th century, all three cities built Jewish Community Centers (some originally known as ymhas, Young Men's Hebrew Associations). In Bethlehem, its jcc was integral to one of its synagogues, Congregation Brith Sholom, until the synagogue relocated in 1985 to new facilities without the recreational facilities of its former location.

Entering the 21st century, the Lehigh Valley Jewish community boasted eight synagogues (two in Easton, two in Bethlehem, four in Allentown) representing the Orthodox, Conservative, Reconstructionist, and Reform denominations. The community supports professionally led Hillel Jewish student unions at its three largest universities: Lafayette College in Easton, Muhlenberg College in Allentown, and Lehigh University in Bethlehem. Lehigh University is home to the Philip and Muriel Berman Center for Jewish Studies. Muhlenberg College sponsors the Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding, founded in partnership with the local Jewish Federation. Youth and teen programming transcends the Lehigh Valley with Jewish youth groups at most synagogues and B'nai B'rith Youth Organization chapters based at the jcc in Allentown.

The Lehigh Valley is home to chapters of many national organizations, including Hadassah and B'nai B'rith, the latter sponsoring low-income senior housing apartments in Allentown.

Although based in Allentown, the larger Jewish community organizations serve the entire Lehigh Valley region. These agencies include the Jewish Community Center, the Jewish Family Service, and the Jewish Day School (a pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school). The Jewish Community Center maintains a sizable facility in Allentown, renovated in 2005–06, as well as a large rural day camp site. The Hebrew Family League sponsors a community mikveh, a ḥevra kaddisha, and the Lehigh Valley Kashrut Commission.

The Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, founded in 1948, is at the nexus of the Lehigh Valley Jewish community. The Jewish Federation is nationally known for its successful fundraising, for creating the first Maimonides Medical Society, and for creating certain recognition programs for Jewish women's philanthropy – the latter two replicated today at virtually every Jewish Federation in the United States. The Jewish Federation is actively involved in building and strengthening the Jewish community in the Lehigh Valley, in Israel, and around the world. Lehigh Valley Jewish philanthropists funded the building of the high school in Ma'alot, Israel.

[Marcy Braverman Goldstein (2nd ed.)]

About this article

Lehigh Valley

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article