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Lehigh Valley Community: Modest in Size, Big in Spirit

May 13, 2010 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Community members work out at a JCC wellness expo in Allentown, while in Easton, others delve into the book of Job at a Limmudim class. Photo by Tom Amico/Amico Studios

It was a rainy Monday morning as members of Allentown's Conservative Temple Beth El filed into the dark synagogue and greeted one another with a friendly series of boker tovs, or "good mornings."

The synagogue usually attracts up to 75 people on Shabbat, but on this particular day, only about a dozen congregants sauntered in to the small sanctuary, most of them men. The group, about half of them regulars, chatted in a quiet, easy manner as they waited for stragglers to show up. But before long, it was time to get down to business.

During the mostly Hebrew service, the dim morning light filtering through the stained-glass window of the four-year-old building brightened up the room just enough to make you forget about the dreariness outside.

The small, close-knit setting appeared to be a microcosm of what Jewish life in Allentown is all about.

"The strength of the Lehigh Valley," said Rabbi Moshe Re'em after services ended, "is in its size. It's not enormous -- you're not going to get lost here."

With a population of about 8,000 Jews across Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton -- all of which house multiple shuls -- the Lehigh Valley is Pennsylvania's third-largest Jewish community, after Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. While the region's Jewish population is relatively stable, it's also being augmented by an annual influx of that rarest commodity: young people.

The 8,000 statistic comes courtesy of the "Lehigh Valley Jewish Community Study 2008," but a figure almost as vital to the region is 1,200. That's the number -- which isn't included in the 8,000 -- of Jewish collegiates at Muhlenberg, Lehigh and Lafayette, the area's three chief institutions of higher education.

All three schools have large numbers of Jews for colleges of their size -- 34 percent of Muhlenberg's student population is Jewish, or about 750 out of the 2,100 -- and the community works to engage with the young adults in its midst.

Students from all three institutions work and volunteer in synagogues and their religious schools, with the Jewish Community Center, Federation and other Jewish institutions in the region, according to Carolyn Katwan, assistant executive director of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley.

Furthermore, many families and organizations keep their doors open to students during the major Jewish holidays.

Recognizing the symbiotic relationship between the students and local community, since 1992 Federation has honored Jewish leaders from each campus with the Levy Hillel Leadership Award.

The local Hillels, said Katwan, serve as an opportunity for Federation to make contact with these young adults.

"Potentially, they'll stay," she said. "Allentown isn't a bad place to live, and hopefully, they'll look for a job here."

For old-timers and new, much of the region's appeal is its modest size and haimisch nature. According to the American Jewish Yearbook, in 1960 Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton had a combined Jewish population of 6,700; for 1981, that number jumped to 7,240; and it was 8,500 for the year 2000.

And in the 2008 study, of the 4,000 Jewish households in the area, about 800 are single-person households with residents age 65 or older. The median age is 52, with 35 percent of the Jewish population age 65 or older.

But as Lehigh University history professor Roger Simon pointed out, today's population is stable, but aging.

"Stable isn't really stable if you're not attracting a lot of young people. I'm not saying we're all a bunch of geriatrics here. There has been some growth; there have been some new families moving in."

Among those is Dr. Matthew Saltz, 30, a pediatrician who relocated to Allentown two years ago from Little Rock, Ark., along with his Israeli wife. They are one of about 100 families to move to the area in the five years leading up to the 2008 demographic study.

The pair have three daughters under 4, and he said the fact that Allentown has amenities like a Jewish day school and a JCC was a big draw for them. The couple lived in Arkansas for about a decade, said Saltz, and also considered relocating to areas around Little Rock and a few different places in Ohio, along with Allentown.

But what won them over has a familiar ring: "It was the community," he said. "It was a bigger Jewish community than where we were, but not such a big community that you get lost."

A History in the Region
The first Jewish settlers arrived in the Lehigh Valley in the early 1750s. Like elsewhere, their numbers increased over time as European Jews, often facing persecution, made their exodus.

Much of the immigration, according to Simon -- a Bethlehem resident of 40 years -- was made up of German Jewish peddlers, who came to the area in the 1830s and '40s because of the Pennsylvania Dutch who were already here.

Easton claims to have the area's oldest Jewish community, and the Reform Temple Covenant of Peace has existed since about 1839, making it one of the oldest Reform temples in the country.

By the 1880s, said Simon, Ashkenazi immigrants had established communities in all three cities, and Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton had active shuls and JCCs by the turn of the 20th century.

Jump ahead 100 years, and the region began going through some serious shifts, as companies like Bethlehem Steel and Mack Trucks closed up shop.

Simon and others noted that the area's Jewish community was less affected by those changes, since historically many of the Jews in the Lehigh Valley worked as professionals or in the retail sector, including the garment industry.

Since then, one of the biggest draws to the area, many said, has been the massive growth of St. Luke's and Lehigh Valley hospitals, which have attracted Jews. Additionally, the three major colleges in the valley have also lured new families.

Conversely, plenty of people live in the valley, but work outside of it. Simon explained that the completion of I-78 across New Jersey two decades ago led to a population influx, on account of reasonable home prices, lower cost of living and the relative ease of commuting. Several buses each day transport people from the Lehigh Valley to jobs in New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia and beyond.

Federation's Katwan observed that cost of living and proximity to major urban centers has made the area "an appealing alternative" for those just starting their careers, in addition to people looking to retire or be nearer to their kids.

While Federation isn't specifically doing anything to woo new members, said Katwan, they do provide material to realtors and major employers to ensure that folks investigating the area have access to the local Jewish community.

A big part of what's buzzing around the valley these days is excitement over a local girl done good. Shoshanna Goldin, a 17-year-old student at Bethlehem's Moravian Academy and a graduate of Allentown's Jewish Day School, was named as one of two winners of $50,000 first-place prizes in a competition of the Young Epidemeology Scholars, or YES, for a study she did on teens and energy drinks.

In addition to getting mainstream press, she's been written up in congregational newsletters and will likely be featured in an upcoming issue of Hakol, a Federation publication. She's also gotten letters and e-mail from well-wishers.

"It's mostly 'Mazel tov, we're so proud' -- the typical Jewish parent kind of response," she said.

A Witness to Change
One of the area's longtime residents is Nina Jackson. A Polish Holocaust survivor, she's lived in Allentown since 1949. She raised her two children there, and has been a member of the Orthodox shul Sons of Israel since 1950. During that time, she's watched as the community changed and shifted -- the JCC moved to the West End; another Orthodox shul used to sit farther east until it closed.

But her memories of the city and the region are mostly positive. She recalled that when she and her husband first arrived 60 years ago, they felt immediately at home. Allentown, nicknamed "The Queen City," was, she said, "the cleanest, the nicest, most peaceful place in all of the United States, if you ask me."

That sense of safety and stability -- combined with amenities often found only in larger Jewish communities -- is what continues to attract newcomers to the region, even if not in the numbers Federation officials would prefer. They take heart in the number of college students arriving each year, and they believe that the Lehigh Valley is probably the best-kept secret around.

"It's a great place to raise a family," said Federation's Katwan. "Getting the young people here to raise those families is the real challenge."

This article, the second of two, was made possible by a special grant from the Irving Felgoise Memorial Fund of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.


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