Stories from the Old 8th Ward
The Old Eighth Ward was the center of Harrisburg’s Litvak–or Lithuanian Jewish–community prior to the Capitol expansion. While an older German Jewish population was already thriving in the city, the newly arriving Litvak found it difficult to integrate with the pre-existing community. Two synagogues were therefore founded in the ward, Kesher Israel and Chisuk Emuna. The presence of both of these congregations serves not only as a testament to the vibrancy of the Jewish community, but also the diversity among these co-religionists.
Chisuk Emuna–originally named “Chiska Emuna bene Russia,” meaning “Strengtheners of Faith of the Children of Russia”–was the first Jewish congregation formed in the Old Eighth Ward by the Litvak fleeing persecution in Russia. These refugees and freedom seekers hailed from just a few towns in Lithuania (which at this time was a part of the Russian empire) and thus were culturally, linguistically, and religiously tight-knit. As such, Chisuk Emuna represented and served a very specific Lithuanian Jewish culture. The congregation was more than a place of worship for Jewish people, it also served to hold the community together as they adjusted to life in a new city where they did not speak the language, eat the same foods, or celebrate the same holidays. Moreover, the synagogue provided culturally appropriate “social security” for its members, as both health and wellness and funerary practices could be difficult to navigate in the community’s new American home.
However, as the Lithuanian Jewish community began to assimilate in Harrisburg, a divide in the Chisuk Emuna congregation emerged. A number of members of the community felt that their Orthodox beliefs were growing more compatible with the larger American culture. Jewish businesses, especially bakers and confectioners in the Old Eighth Ward, had grown to serve more than just the tight-knit Jewish community, helping to enfold them within the larger multi-cultural fabric of Old Eighth. This led to the formation of a new congregation, Kesher Israel, which sought to maintain Orthodox practices while also engaging more with the public. While most members of Chisuk Emuna conducted both their religious and secular business exclusively in Yiddish, Kesher Israel’s congregants were more comfortable with English. This also allowed Kesher Israel to draw congregants from the larger non-Lithuanian Jewish community in Harrisburg.
Joining those who left Chisuk Emuna for Kesher Israel, was Rabbi Eliezer Silver, who left his position of leadership at his former congregation to become the first leader of Kesher Israel. While leading the congregation, Silver became a prominent member of American Rabbinical circles. He used this place of prominence to advocate first for Jewish people suffering in Russia and then, after leaving his position at Kesher Israel, became the first president of Vaad Hatzalah (Rescue Committee) that sought to help Torah scholars escape Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II. It is perhaps no coincidence that a neighborhood that played a prominent role during the American Civil War in assisting freedom seekers would also feature such an important man who worked to save those who may have otherwise died in the Holocaust. Moreover, like those working in the Underground Railroad, Silver was willing to work both within and outside the law to save lives. Even before World War II, he regularly lobbied U.S. presidents to support Jewish people being persecuted in Europe. During the war, he even dressed as a U.S. Army Chaplin and traveled to Europe to gain access to war zones.
Rabbi Silver’s legacy lived on among the Kesher Israel congregation, as he returned in 1933 to help lead the installation service of the congregation’s new rabbi, his son David L. Silver
Rabbi Dr. Nachman Heller only spent a short time in Harrisburg. However, during his time at Kesher Israel Synagogue, he earned a reputation as an important Jewish author, teacher, and intellectual. At a time when anti-Semitism was still rampant, he used his journalistic skill to educate the public about important aspects of Jewish life and worship. For example, he wrote an explanation of the Jewish observances of the Fast of Esther and the Feast of Purim in the Harrisburg Telegraph on March 16, 1908. Similarly, he took great pride in the education of Harrisburg’s Jewish youth, establishing a Hebrew Academy in association with Kesher Israel. Although he left Kesher Israel in 1911 to begin work at another congregation in Charleston, West Virginia, he continued to return to the Old Eighth Ward as a guest lecturer while remaining active as an author and public intellectual. Upon Dr. Heller’s publication of a poetic translation of the Ten Commandments designed to be used in Hebrew schools, the Harrisburg Daily Independent commented
Dr. Heller has gained considerable note as a writer and man of letters, having written and published extensively in three languages–Hebrew, English and Yiddish…. Rabbi Nachman Heller possesses, in addition, rare clerical abilities, being an eloquent speaker and an efficient instructor.Harrisburg Daily Independent, September 29, 1909