Rabbi Smith's Sermons

In its more then 150 years of continuous history, Congregation Beth Israel and its
Jewish community have symbolized the story of the American Jew.
 

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The community has reflected the social and economic developments of the Northeast. Today, we are an example of twenty-first century American Judaism. The makeup of the Congregation reflects the ever-changing pattern of the demographics of Wayne and Pike Counties in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Our story has many chapters beginning with the story of the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company and its need to serve its workers. Our early founders were part of the retail merchant community of rural America in the mid- and late- nineteenth century. Then came a small but creative and dynamic Manufacturing Class that found an adequate supply of workers prepared to support the developing Textile industry. In addition, the County Seat of Honesdale, supported a professional class. Government and the Hospital became major sources of Middle Class employment. One unique phenomenon that developed from the late 1920s on has been a flourishing community of Resident Summer Camps that increased the population of the area by over 50,000 individuals each summer. Many of these camps serve primarily Jewish children, their older adult counselors, and the owners and directors of the Camps. The surrounding hills and mountains saw the development of a winter recreational season as well. Second home communities developed throughout the area - Hemlock Farms and The Hideout are the two largest. In the beginning the residents were seasonal. But slowly, the lure of a more rural life with its relaxing atmosphere and its security transformed the residents of these communities into full time dynamic participants in the life of the greater Wayne and Pike Counties area. Congregation Beth Israel has benefited and flourished throughout the more than 157 years of this development.

As one would expect, the Congregation membership was of German ancestry. It began as Orthodox but quickly transformed itself into a reflection of German Reform or Classical Reform. The members were not assimilationists, but strongly supported the idea of being 100% America. The members were active in all the cultural and civic institutions of the day. In the 1930s and 1940s, Jews of Eastern European backgrounds began to move into the area. The Congregation began to slowly change from Classical Reform to a more Traditional Reform. The Jewish community saw itself as an independent "full service" community. So in addition to the Synagogue, there was the Cemetery Association, a sisterhood, a Lodge of Bnai Brith and a Chapter of Hadassah. The Community supported the concept of Jewish philanthropy and contributed generously to community and Jewish causes. The members were active in the Hospital Board and its auxiliaries. They supported the Cultural institutions such as the Wildflower Music Festival, the local libraries and the various fraternal organizations. Jewish Philanthropic activities included support for the Jewish institutions of nearby Scranton, such as the Jewish Home and Jewish Community Center. There is an annual UJA appeal. Everything that existed in the "Big City Jewish Communities", had its reflection in the Congregation Beth Israel Community.

That tradition continues today. The Congregational Membership supports the religious school activities and seeks out Jewish cultural events. The membership is dynamic. While there remains a core of Members that can trace their roots back to the Early Founders, the majority of Members have joined the Community in the last fifteen years. Every year there are B'nai Mitzvah and Weddings celebrated in the Synagogue. There are inevitable sad occasions as Members pass on and choose the Beth Israel Cemetery as their final resting place. New Members join every year. They come from all walks of life. More and more Jewish individuals find their way to Honesdale and the surrounding areas as a result of their time spent in our well-known summer camps, at our local resorts, and because of the developing communities. The Counties are among the fastest-growing in the Northeast, and recreational and residential activities expand to meet the ever-changing needs.

I have been the Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel for over thirty-five years. I have witnessed so many of these developments. I have celebrated with so many different families from so many different places. The one element of this Community that has always impressed me, however, is the way in which all of life is so easily absorbed into the over 150 years of this Community. The walls of our Synagogue, small and most beautiful, seem to ever expand to breathe new life into the Community. There is a very welcoming invitation for everyone to join in the embrace of Congregation Beth Israel.


(570) 253-2222  -  615 COURT STREET,  HONESDALE, PA 18431  -  ESTABLISHED 1849