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Temple Israel Synagogue

  • ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS Rabbi Melody Davis put on a prayer shawl.
    ELSA KERSCHNER/TIMES NEWS Rabbi Melody Davis put on a prayer shawl.
Published September 02. 2011 05:01PM

As members of the Palmerton Area Historical Society were welcomed to the basement of the Temple Israel Synagogue in Lehighton, Secretary Betsy Burnhauser said the group wanted to visit for a long time and this year it worked out.

Board director Marvin Schwartz said his family members were founders. He thinks there may have been an earlier synagogue in Lansford but was not sure. Today, the one in Lehighton is the only one in the county.

When coming into Lehighton there are double flights of steps leading to the synagogue, but the steps are no longer in common use since there is a parking lot on a level with the building.

A couple years before 1924 a need was felt for a synagogue. They wanted to plant Judaism in Lehighton. Members met over the First National Pharmacy until the new building was completed in 1924. It served Palmerton, Weissport, Lehighton and surrounding areas.

The languages used were Pennsylvania Dutch and Yiddish. Since then, Yiddish has been looked down upon as a poor language and Hebrew is used in its place. Pennsylvania Dutch was dropped and replaced with English. Hebrew and English are both used in services.

Many historic family names are found on memorial plaques in the rear of the synagogue. In the beginning there was no electricity, but the newest plaque has a small light by each name. All plaques give the date of death.

In Weissport there is a Temple Israel Cemetery but it is not connected to the church. Any Jewish family can use it.

Schwartz said from the founding in 1924 it was a very active congregation with a Hebrew school and later a Sunday school - and the population to support it. Numbers dropped and there is no longer a full-time congregation.

William Cohen organized the Hebrew school. The school was in the basement where the visitors entered.

Schwartz said he was born in 1954 and does not remember full-time use, but his father did when he came back from World War II. He said he and Betty Burian are the only children of founders still there.

An outside rabbi would come in for high holy day services during the past 29 years.

Rabbi Melody Davis told about some of the artifacts set out on a table. There is a book of Psalms handwritten in Hebrew from 1874 which is fragile and people were asked not to handle it.

American Jewish prayer books date to the early 1900s. There are temple journals and articles of incorporation.

A justice box was for contributions to take care of widows and children. "You may not like them but you must care for them," said Davis.

A shofar, a horn made from a ram's horn, is difficult to blow if a person is not used to it.

Historically, the first person to see a sliver of a new moon ran to the Sanhedrin (council) which sent scouts to the mountain to blow the shofar. It is blown not only to announce the new month but for special holidays.

Serena Berlow demonstrated its use and blew a long drawn-out note. She said she sounds the horn for Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the new year.

Rabbi Davis showed a cloth used to cover the bread. On Friday a family would get a double portion so they don't have to get some on Saturday (the Sabbath).

To usher in the Sabbath, candles are lit. The Bible says God created day (the candles provide the light of day) and then the night. The drinking of wine or grape juice helps begin the Sabbath.

The original architect's plans were shown beginning with the basement floor, where the visitors were.

Since it was chartered as an Orthodox synagogue, men and women were seated separately. It was felt the women would distract the men from paying strict attention if they were together.

Rabbi Davis puts on a prayer shawl, which she described as amazing and beautiful in the European style.

"We are amazingly good at adapting," said Davis. She said the six-pointed Star of David dates to approximately 700 A.D.

Holidays have an agricultural connection. A lunar calendar is used and has to be corrected, usually in March.

One of the Jewish miracles is that when the Maccabees took back the temple from Greek Syria they had enough oil to last a day but it lasted eight days till more consecrated oil could be made.

The Living Torah contains the first five books of the Bible. Vowels are not used in the Hebrew version which is hand written, but are used in the English version. The letters cannot touch each other as in cursive writing because each letter is an individual. It is written with a quill on parchment made from a kosher (cow, deer, goat, sheep) animal.

It contains 70 names for God, both masculine and feminine. When it is carried there are two bells on top so people know it is coming. Taking the bells off to put it away is called undressing it.

The early Jews spoke a Semitic language, Aramaic, so they needed a translator to help them read Hebrew.

Davis said she has had five years of training. She had begged her parents to be able go to a Hebrew school, but she became a photographer and actress until seven years ago. When she asked her children what they felt about her becoming a rabbi, her daughter said, "Oh, Momma, we always knew you were going to be a rabbi."

She will be rabbi at an Easton synagogue also, but says, "Folks here are truly a blessing."

She notes the two menorahs that are dedicated to the parents of Martin Phillips, a Palmerton lawyer. Then everyone went back to the Sunday school room for cookies and beverages. A Declaration of the Jewish state (Israel) and a picture of the groundbreaking for the synagogue are on the wall.

The artifacts given to the synagogue by Martin Phillips were passed on to the historical society including a complete set of Kiddush (wine cups).

The once-a-month service to which everyone is invited is on a Saturday, 10:30 a.m. High Holy Day services, also open to everyone, are held according to a schedule available at or call (610) 379-9591.

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