A Slice of History
In 1917, during the fifteenth anniversary celebration of the Keser Israel synagogue in Harrisburg, PA, news reached the celebrating Jews that Russian rebels had overthrown the czar and given Jews equal rights. This good news added to the joyous occasion and was taken as a positive omen by the congregation as it prepared to erect a new building.
At the time, the synagogue was led by R. Eliezer Silver, a leading scholar and an executive member of Agudas Ha-Rabbonim (Union of Orthodox Rabbis of America and Canada), of which he would later become president. As part of a fundraising effort, the congregation commissioned a “Golden Book” (Pinkas Ha-Zahav), a history of the synagogue which also named important members who contributed over the years in various ways and listed donors to the new building fund. Keser Israel’s current rabbi, R. Akiva Males, was kind enough to send me a copy of the historical document. (Click on images below to enlarge)
If I am reading the book correctly, a number of important rabbis contributed an unstated amount toward the effort. Or perhaps they merely lent their support. The rabbis include: R. Moshe Zevulun Margolies, President of the Agudas Ha-Rabbonim and rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan; R. Dov Levinthal, an executive of the Agudas Ha-Rabbonim and rabbi in Philadelphia; R. Yisrael Rosenberg, also an executive of the Agudas Ha-Rabbonim and founder of Ezras Torah; R. Dov Revel, listed as an instructor (Ram) at Yeshiva Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan (RIETS); R. Chaim Hirschensohn of Hoboken and many others.
What is now called Kesher Israel used to be called Keser Israel, in this book both in Hebrew and on the English cover. It is still called Keser Israel in Hebrew but Kesher Israel in English. One theory is that R. Eliezer Silver objected to the name Kesher Israel because “kesher” implies a group of trouble-makers. Therefore, he changed the Hebrew name to Keser. However, the English cover of this book, which calls the synagogue Keser Israel, poses a challenge to that theory.
Keser Israel was founded in 1902 and was originally located directly across from the Pennsylvania state capital. However, the congregation had to move in 1917 when the government decided to expand its facilities. The synagogue relocated and, in 1949, moved again to its current location.
Jewish education in the synagogue initially consisted of a few teachers for the congregation’s children. However, in 1908 the synagogue opened a Talmud Torah for the entire city’s Jewish community.
R. Eliezer Silver became, in 1907, the Orthodox rabbi of all Harrisburg. In 1911, he began praying consistently in Keser Israel and moved his Chevrah Shas, Chevrah Mishnah and Chevrah Mikra to the synagogue. He taught regular classes in the morning and evening to these dedicated groups. This influx of devout Jews invigorated the synagogue and led to a new era in its history. Throughout the next few years, Keser Israel enjoyed active youth groups, teen lectures, various women’s societies, and more charitable groups.
In 1914, Harrisburg hosted the Va’ad Ha-Poskim (Halakhic Decisors) of Agudas Ha-Rabbonim, due in no small part to R. Silver’s position as Vice Chairman of the organization. Keser Israel hosted a dinner in honor of the distinguished rabbis and proudly served as the meeting place for the rabbis.
The book tells an interesting story that occurred not long before its writing. One day, two of the synagogue’s Torah scrolls were found removed from the ark, one of them broken. The vandals who committed this crime were never caught. However, on the insistence of the rabbi, all the synagogue’s Torah scrolls were inspected. All were declared valid except for the broken Torah, which contained previously unnoticed errors unrelated to the vandalism. Implicit in this telling is that the vandalism was heavenly notice about the scroll’s problems.
Like many American cities, Harrisburg has a rich Jewish history that deserves close attention. Some of it has been described in published books and a little slice was preserved in this 1917 fundraising booklet.
The recent history of the Keser Israel “Golden Book,” how it was recovered and returned, is discussed here: link.
R. Eliezer Silver’s time in Harrisburg is described in chapter 2 of R. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff’s The Silver Era.
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