Bnai Abraham Synagogue...
a Conservative Synagogue serving the Community for
over 100 years
The early history of Bnai Abraham Synagogue is, in large part, also the history of the eastern European immigrants who settled in the Easton area in the late 19th century. Congregation Bnai Abraham has served the Easton Jewish community for over one hundred years.
Europeans first settled Easton, Pennsylvania, where the Lehigh River flows into the Delaware, in 1739. The town of Easton was formally founded in the 1750s. Myer Hart, a Jewish merchant, was among the leading settlers in the nascent town. However, the Hart family drifted away in the early nineteenth century.
In its first hundred years, the town grew slowly as the farmland in the surrounding region filled mostly with English and German (Pennsylvania Dutch) settlers. In the 1830s and 40s, canals and railroads stimulated rapid growth throughout eastern Pennsylvania and brought waves of immigrants from Ireland and Germany, including some German Jews. A small cluster of German Jewish immigrants soon emerged in Easton. The colony was a base from which peddlers roamed the countryside selling their wares to local farmers. The peddlers’ ability to converse in German and knowledge of the Hebrew Bible ingratiated them with local farmers. In time, many became local shopkeepers in Easton. In 1839, the local community established a synagogue, Covenant of Peace, among the oldest continuous congregations in the United States. Begun as an Orthodox congregation, by the 1870s it had adopted Reform practices.
The 1880s and 90s witnessed a new wave of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. Appalled by the Reform tradition and rebuffed by the established German Jews, in 1888, they took the first steps toward establishing their own congregation, Bnai Abraham. Worship followed traditional Orthodox practice, and services were initially held in private homes. In 1889, a small parcel was acquired that became the congregation’s original cemetery. In 1898, an old house was purchased for a synagogue, and a mikveh was built next to a member’s home. By 1908, with ninety families, the congregation constructed a new synagogue on Ferry Street.
By the 1920s, Bnai Abraham was struggling with the tension between tradition and change. Yiddish was increasingly seen as old-fashioned and a barrier between generations. Many women pushed for a “modern rabbi who could talk to the children” and some attended services at Covenant of Peace. In 1920, the Hebrew school was moved to the recently opened Easton YMHA, where it remained for twenty years. In the late 1920s, a section of the Sanctuary was set aside for mixed seating and prayer books with English translations acquired, but the transition to the Conservative movement took years. In 1937, a conservative Rabbi was on the pulpit. Even so, tension continued for another decade. Separate Orthodox services continued until the late 1940s. The first Bat Mitzvah took place in 1948.
In the post war years, the congregation grew and Hebrew school enrollment jumped, with 139 children in 1960. In the same year, 24 members purchased and donated a tract of land on Bushkill Street for a new building, which opened in September, 1965. The Sanctuary was designed in the shape of a tent reminiscent of the Tent of Abraham. In 1973, the first Saturday morning Bat Mitzvah was celebrated, women easily won the right to be counted as part of a minyan, and the congregation elected a woman as president for the first time.
With the passage of generations, the antipathy between the predominantly German Covenant of Peace and the eastern European Bnai Abraham congregations dissipated. The establishment of an Easton YMHA and later a summer day camp provided important venues that unified the Easton Jewish community. The “Y” closed in the late 1970s, and the day camp in the late 1980s. The two synagogues’ new buildings are within walking distance of each other.
The completion of Interstate Route 78 from New York through the Lehigh Valley in the late 1980s brought an influx of new Jewish families into the area. Bnai Abraham draws members from western New Jersey and the nearby Poconos and from many townships around the Lehigh Valley. There remains potential for growth, as many families in and around our community are unaffiliated.
Today, Bnai Abraham faces many of the same challenges of other conservative synagogues across the country, however, we believe that our Synagogue is very special, and has much to offer you and your family. Bnai Abraham comprises a large multitude of caring and committed members, energetic young children, very hip teenagers, and seniors who play an active role in our services and programs. Each of these groups contribute to our present and future path.
We invite everyone in the Easton community and beyond to come and join us. We welcome you to come and be a part of our family. Everyone is important and a valuable addition to our congregation.
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