POTTSTOWN PA – Members of Congregation Hesed Shel Emet, located at 575 N. Keim St. and described by Rabbi Ira Flax as “the center of Jewish life here in Pottstown,” on Tuesday (May 16, 2017) marks the 125th anniversary of its founding. The congregation obtained its charter as “Chreschet Shell Emes” from the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas on May 16, 1892.
While tomorrow’s official quasquicentennial event will pass somewhat quietly, representatives say the congregation will honor its rich history with an open house educational event in early September, and a gala dinner celebration on Nov. 11 (Saturday). Details on both will be posted on the congregation website and Facebook page in the coming months.
Jewish Population History In Pottstown
“Our community has had illustrious leaders,” Flax said, “who in turn inspired generations of business, civic and religious giants for five generations. Writers, statesmen and even a university chancellor hail from the nurturing embrace of Hesed Shel Emet.”
The history of the Jewish population in Pottstown dates back to around 1844. They came from Germany and settled in the area colloquially known as Chicken Hill. Among the settlers were the Miller, Mosheim, and Weitzenkorn families whose descendants still live in the area.
From 1882-1890, Jews from Hungary and Russia came to the United States with hope for a better life and to worship in freedom. Services were held in homes and finally on March 11, 1889, they requested a charter for a congregation, Hahawas Achem, and built a Synagogue on Hale Street. After several years, because of financial problems and personal disputes, that congregation dissolved and sold the building. Its cemetery remains on State Street.
Formation Of ‘Hesed Shel Emet’
In May 1892, Jewish families of the borough formed a new congregation named Hesed shel Emet (Mercy and Truth), which repurchased the Hale Street building in 1893. The treasury showed an income of $7.43, and expenses of $12.11; a deficit of $4.68.
After years of hardship, the membership began to grow. The Synagogue was very active, with many organizations and clubs, and soon needed more space. With the initiative of President Adolf Printz and a “vigorous, determined committee,” its sixty families raised funds to build a new Synagogue at High and Warren Streets in 1925 for $110,000. In 1927, Rabbi Maxwell Farber was installed as the first ordained rabbi. In 1948 they purchased the Romig property to be used as a school building.
In November 1956, the congregation had 132 children enrolled in its religious school, and again needed more space. In January 1959, congregants formed a building committee to renovate and enlarge the High Street building, but faced objections. A group proposed building in a new location, and the congregation formed a new committee. In February 1959, it decided to build on North Keim Street at a cost not to exceed $350,000. The building was dedicated Sept. 9, 1962.
In May 2016, the congregation sold its building at 575 N. Keim St. to Bethel Community Church of Pottstown, founded by Pastor Reverend Dr. Vernon Ross in May 2015. The congregation worships in a space it rents at the Keim Street building.
Recognizing ‘Commitment And Dedication’
“It is a great achievement for a small town like Pottstown to have maintained a Jewish identity for 125 years,” congregation President Barry Sankey said. “It has taken a high level of commitment and dedication by a large number of people in order to have achieved that milestone, in terms of the volunteer workload involved as well as the financial aspect.”
“We should all look back with pride in what has taken place during that long time span in terms of the growth and changes in the Jewish community,” Sankey added. “We have remained in existence because of some long-standing families, as well as the many new people who have crossed our path. Many people have lived well outside the Pottstown area, but have chosen to join Congregation Hesed Shel Emet. Hopefully, there are many more great years to come.”
Photo from Congregation Hesed Shel Emet via Facebook
History supplied by the congregation