A Brief History of Lancaster’s Orthodox Community
From the early 1880s to the early 1900s, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, saw a large influx of Eastern European Jews as a result of the May Laws and violent pogroms in territory controlled by czarist Russia.
On December 9th, 1887, a group of “Russian Hebrews” purchased a small building on the northeast corner of South Duke and Locust Streets in Lancaster for $900. It was a single-room affair capable of accommodating 50 people, chartered as Congregation Chizuk Emunah. In 1888, Congregation Chizuk Emunah purchased a cemetery in Lancaster Township for $400. Until this point, there were no burials in Congregation Shaarai Shomayim’s cemetery on Liberty Street from the new influx of Jews. A stillborn child of the Feldser family was the first internment in the new cemetery in Bausman.
Spirited infighting within this congregation lead to a schism that formed Congregation Hagudah Sholom in 1892, with 50 families. In 1892, this congregation bought a parcel adjacent to Chizuk Emunah’s cemetery in Bausman.
On September 18th, 1896, Congregation Degel Israel was chartered by 16 members, a process that started on September 23, 1895. Services were held at 3 East King St and later a house on Chester Street.
Though Congregation Chizuk Emunah would continue to exist until 1908, a joint effort between members of both congregations on March 21, 1900 produced a building fund for Degel Israel’s first formal synagogue to be constructed on Chester Street near Duke street.
The cornerstone was laid on April 22, 1900, with a prayer from Rabbi Isidore Rosenthal of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim, and the new synagogue was dedicated on September 17th, 1900.
When Chizuk Emunah formally merged with Degel Israel, it formally turned over its portion of the cemetery. Hagudah Sholom sold its portion of the cemetery to another splinter congregation chartered in 1911, Congregation Kesher Torah, which in turn relinquished that portion of the cemetery to Degel Israel when it merged back into the congregation in 1920. On February 19, 1929, Degel Israel purchased additional land for its cemetery.
Degel Israel’s Chester Street Synagogue was renovated and expanded in 1911. In 1923, a boiler fire took most of the building. The collection of Torahs was saved, but most historical records were lost. In 1929, the synagogue was again expanded, this time to accommodate 500 people.
A History of Talmud Torah in Lancaster
Jewish education started in Lancaster, according to our oral history, even before the congregations were chartered. In 1914, and later in 1927, the education system, Talmud Torah, bought adjacent properties on Chester Street. There, they conducted afternoon classes, with daily Hebrew education, in addition to classes on Sunday. These buildings were formally turned over to Degel Israel in 1931.
In 1956 Degel Israel purchased another property on North Prince for use as a Hebrew school meeting room and social hall. It was sold in 1961 to finance construction of the Columbia Avenue building. Today, that property is a parking lot.
From 1964 to Today
On August 24th, 1964, after a procession from Chester Street to Columbia Avenue with their Torahs, Degel Israel took up its new home. In 1976 a home was built on the property for the rabbi and his family.
In recent years, Degel Israel has added the Ilse and Eric Nussbaum Community Mikvah, which the congregation generously shares with Lancaster’s two other Jewish congregations. For a time, Degel Israel hosted a Yeshivah focusing on both study and honing of trade skills for Jewish youth.
We’ve welcomed Rabbi Green and his campus and community-wide efforts on behalf of Chabad Lubavitch.
Lancaster County continues to expand its offerings to Jews of all backgrounds with events at local theme parks for Sukkot, and Degel Israel leads the charge in helping visitors find kosher food and Shabbos/Yom Tov-friendly accommodations.
Degel Israel today continues its rich history and commitment to growing Torah observance amongst Jews of Lancaster County from all walks of life.