USA: Middletown, Pennsylvania's B'nai Jacob is Small, but Still a Treasure (and tied to Pušalotas, Lithuania)
by Samuel D. Gruber
[(August 26, 2015) Correction: in the first version of this post, I said that the former synagogue of Pušalotas was still used as a meat canning plant. This is not true. That function ended in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and the synagogue has been owned by the Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) Community (LJC) since 1993. Unfortunately, no use for the building has been found, and it is empty.]
(ISJM) A few months ago I had the pleasure of visiting the B'nai Jacob synagogue in Middleton, Pennsylvania, where the local Penn State University campus is located, just outside Harrisburg. I'd known about this little gem for many years, first from a paper written by Matt Singer relating this building to similar vernacular Gothic synagogues (you can read it here: Jewish-American Gothic Architecture), and also from Julian Preisler, who has been documenting Pennsylvania synagogues for many years. The opportunity to lecture at Penn State Harrisburg gave me a chance to visit - and I was not disappointed.
Coincidentally for me (but as pointed out by Singer) the building bears striking formal similarities to the former Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vermont, and the B'nai Abraham Synagogue of Brenham, Texas, which was recently relocated to Austin (and which will be rededicated on August 30th. These were all Lithuanian-Jewish (Litvak) settlements, and they all seem to have drawn on similar sources and/or been inspired in similar ways by local American vernacular construction. I'm also interested in Middletown's connection to Pusalotas, Lithuania, the town from which most of the Middletown Jewish settlers emigrated ca. 1900, and whose Jewish population was massacred in 1941, but where the former synagogue still stands, and has been returned to the Jewish Community of Lithuania. My new position as a member of the Commission for the Issues Concerning the Jewish History and Culture has me wondering if something more should or could be done there.
Services are still held in Middletown once a month (but of course, no more in Pusalotas) and the small B'nai Jacob congregation works hard to maintain the building and its fittings. Three ark curtains have been saved and conserved, and these are hung in protective frames in the social hall downstairs.
The congregation is presently raising funds to restore the exterior entrance stairs which are deteriorating, and bowing away from the building. More than half of the estimated $25,000 needs has been raised. I encourage readers to make an online contribution - of any size - via the GoFundMe webpage, here.
You can read about the Middletown synagogue here: Historic B'nai Jacob Synagogue, with a detailed description and analysis of the building by Matt Singer here: B'NAI JACOB BUILDING ANALYSIS.
"were, overwhelmingly, Lithuanian Jewish immigrants. Oral lore notes that the founders were not only all, or nearly all, Lithuanian, but were from small, rural villages in the vicinity of the city of Panevezys in north-central Lithuania. Records available through JewishGen, a Jewish genealogy website, confirm this assertion. An addendum to the synagogue’s National Register of Historic Places Inventory—Nomination Form (B’nai Jacob was granted historic status in 1985), states that B’nai Jacob’s members were, primarily, from the village of Pusalotas in north-central Lithuania.These Lithuanian Jews were adventurous enough to immigrate to the United States and settle in an obscure, rural town (in these characteristics, of course, Middletown was similar to the villages from which B’nai Jacob’s founders hailed) with a minuscule Jewish community and no Jewish institutions prior to the building of the synagogue. Nonetheless, they maintained traditional Eastern European Orthodox practice, which included living within walking distance of a synagogue, as traditional Jewish law forbids traveling by vehicle on the Sabbath."
The main centre of activity was the shul - a solid two-storey brick building which was the heart of the shtetl. This was the new shul that was completed in 1913 after the wooden synagogue burned down. The main hall had two large tiled stoves that were always lit during winter, as it was extremely cold. This hall was only used on Shabbat and Yomtov. For daily prayers we used a small room heated in winter with ready-cut wooden logs - there was always a tall stack of them in the open yard - as Lithuania had no coal mines. Prayers were held three times a day and we boys were expected to davven every day, which we duly did. The shul had no toilets, as there was no running water in the shtetl and no indoor plumbing.