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Historic Middletown synagogue to celebrate renovations on Sunday

By Phyllis Zimmerman Special to the Press & Journal
Posted 5/17/17

Members of the Historic B’nai Jacob Synagogue are stepping up to celebrate the completion of new front steps and a façade wall for the century-old home of worship in the heart of …

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Historic Middletown synagogue to celebrate renovations on Sunday

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Members of the Historic B’nai Jacob Synagogue are stepping up to celebrate the completion of new front steps and a façade wall for the century-old home of worship in the heart of Middletown.

The B’nai Jacob Synagogue at Nissley and West Water streets was built in 1906 as the borough’s first and only synagogue, designed and constructed by its charter members. The building’s original steps and façade wall, built in 1921, were “beginning to really deteriorate” before the new structures were completed late last year by K&G Artisan Builders of Lancaster.

“The new wall and steps look fantastic now,” said Larry Kapenstein, B’nai Jacob’s caretaker/treasurer.

A dedication ceremony for the new addition is scheduled for 11 a.m. Sunday, May 21, the culmination of a two-year effort. B’nai Jacob’s annual Lag B’Omer picnic at Hoffer Park takes place immediately following the ceremony. Reservations are required for the picnic and are available at marlenefksnell@gmail.com.

Scheduled guests include descendants of the synagogue’s founders, including those of founder Samuel Cohen. The synagogue’s original wall and steps were dedicated to Cohen, whose name was inscribed on a stone plaque on the original façade wall. The same plaque has been transferred to the new façade wall.

Also scheduled to attend is Laura Silver, author of “Knish: In Search of Jewish Soul Food.” In fact, selling knish was one of the ways B’nai Jacob raised money toward its new steps and façade. The synagogue raised $2,118.75 by selling the filled dough delicacy.

All in all, the synagogue raised “well over $25,000” to complete the steps and façade wall, including $4,132.52 from an online GoFundMe campaign and $19,463,87 in donations to a synagogue building fund, according to Kapenstein.

“We received donations from several of the local Middletown churches. We also got $5,000 from an anonymous donor who matched up to that amount when we raised it in a certain window of time, from July 20 to Aug. 31,” Kapenstein said.

Project fundraising was coordinated by synagogue members Roxanne Toser and son Harris Toser of Harrisburg. Roxanne Toser, granddaughter of synagogue founder Samuel Payne, said fundraising was completed in just four months.

“It was so much fun. We heard from a lot of our founders’ relatives and former members from all over the country,” Roxanne Toser said.

Middletown was selected as the location for a Jewish community in 1906 because it was situated on the main line of the Pennsylvania Railroad, according to the B’nai Jacob’s webpage. The borough also was close to Harrisburg, which could be used as a backup location for peddlers’ trades.

By the early 1900s, about 20 Jewish families had settled in Middletown. Many came from small towns in Lithuania and were drawn to small rural communities such as Middletown that resembled their European homelands. Early religious services were held in the Middletown home of Yoel and Ida Hervitz as the community planned and constructed the synagogue.

Today the B’nai Jacob Synagogue is the oldest building erected as a synagogue in Dauphin County that has remained in continuous use, according to B’nai Jacob’s webpage. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

Despite the synagogue’s obvious success and longevity, Kapenstein noted a recent experience for which he initially feared the worst. On March 4, a “medium-sized” package was delivered to his home in Lower Swatara Township via U.S. Priority Mail. It was erroneously addressed to “Congregation B’nai Jacob, North Wood St., Middletown, PA.”

“That’s not our address. Not used to getting packages, and with all of the recent threats to Jewish community centers and desecration of Jewish cemeteries, I was suspicious and hesitant to open the package,” Kapenstein recounted. He then contacted Lower Swatara police.

Police opened the suspicious package with gloves to reveal a voluminous history of the synagogue sent by a woman named Lindsay who offered no last name or return address. More than a decade ago, Lindsay had begun a major project of documenting the synagogue’s history before she fled from the area in the night to escape domestic abuse. She had traveled through six states before realizing that the history book remained in an unopened box in her van.

“We’re very grateful (to have this book) since there are no archives of our past history before about 20 years ago. Parts of it are quite in-depth with genealogies going back to Lithuania included,” Kapenstein said.

Also this spring, an ongoing repair and refurbishing of the synagogue’s stained glass windows is scheduled for completion after several years of work, Kapenstein announced. The majority of the funds for the project’s completion are from the Lorena Feidt Lemons Fund of the Foundation for Enchancing Communities on behalf of Loren Feidt Lemons, the Harry K. and Anna Hershey Alwine Donation, and the Zacks family fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of Central PA.

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