Our Congregation's Incredible Journey
In the fall of 1849, less than 20 years after the community of Honesdale in the Poconos was founded, a small group of Jews gathered to form the first Jewish congregation in the area – Congregation Beth Israel. Like most synagogues of the day, they held their first meetings with a borrowed Torah in one of the member’s homes. By the next year, the congregation had purchased a Torah, a Shofar and a Megillah. That same year, they started the cemetery that continues today as the Beth Israel Cemetery. A constitution was written and the congregation began to grow.
Beth Israel’s story has many chapters, beginning with the story of the Delaware & Hudson Canal Company and its need to serve its workers. The early founders were part of the retail merchant community of rural America in the mid- and late- nineteenth century. There followed a small but creative and dynamic manufacturing community that found workers in the area prepared to support the developing Textile industry. In addition, the County Seat in Honesdale supported a professional class including government- and hospital-related occupations.
The beautiful natural surroundings and proximity to major population centers led to the development of 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 from throughout the Northeast. The surrounding hills and mountains saw the growth of a winter recreational season as well. Resort home communities sprouted up throughout the area – Hemlock Farms and The Hideout are among largest. Although the majority of the residents were seasonal, over time, the lure of a more rural life with its relaxing atmosphere and its security transformed the residents of these communities into full-time, vibrant participants in the life of the greater Wayne and Pike Counties area. Congregation Beth Israel has benefited and flourished throughout its more than 165 years of history.
As might be expected, the Congregation began as Orthodox but quickly transformed itself into a reflection of German Reform or Classical Reform tradition. In the 1930s and 1940s, Jews of Eastern European backgrounds began to move into the area and the Congregation began to change from Classical Reform to a more mainstream Reform congregation. The Jewish community saw itself as an independent “full service” community.
So in addition to the Synagogue, there was the Cemetery Association, a lodge of B’nai B’rith and a chapter of Hadassah. The community supported the concept of Jewish philanthropy and contributed generously to community and Jewish causes, including support for the Jewish institutions of nearby Scranton, such as the Jewish Home and Jewish Community Center.
Beth Israel Today
Today, Beth Israel Congregation’s dynamic membership supports a religious school and a variety of Jewish cultural events. While there remains a core of Members who 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 historic Beth Israel synagogue building. Each year, more members find their way to Honesdale and the surrounding areas as a result of time spent in the area’s well-known summer camps, at local resorts, and because of the ever-developing communities.
As part of the Union of Reform Judaism movement, we embrace modern tenets, but we also invest in honoring where we come from. That is why we maintain a small museum case with artifacts like the ones you see at the top of this page.