Historical Markers
Israel Benevolent Society Cemetery Historical Marker
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Israel Benevolent Society Cemetery

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
361 East Washington Street, Chambersburg

Dedication Date:
May 12, 2002

Behind the Marker

Exterior In 1847 twelve men founded the Bes Almon Society, the earliest Jewish organization in Pittsburgh. Shaare Shamayim, the first synagogue in Pennsylvania west of the Alleghenies, was formed the next year. Rodef Shalom, the oldest active Jewish Congregation in western Pennsylvania, was chartered by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1856.
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Rodef Shalom Temple, 4905 Fifth Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA, 1908.
Several Jewish settlers already lived in New Sweden before William Penn first arrived in his new colony in 1683. By the 1730s, a small but thriving community of Jews were living in Philadelphia and trading with Pennsylvania's frontier settlements. As early 1750, a fledgling Jewish congregation had purchased land in Lancaster, and by 1789, the first local synagogue was in regular use but disappeared in 1802.

With the completion of a railroad line between Philadelphia and Columbia on the Susquehanna River in the mid-1830s, the vast interior of southcentral Pennsylvania opened to a steady stream of westward-bound migrants. Jews established their first synagogues in Scranton, Honesdale, and Pittsburgh around 1850.
Town streets and buildings
Chambersburg, PA, 1877.
Often new synagogues and burial societies were established through the economic assistance of markerCongregation Mikveh Israel and through the patronage of wealthier Philadelphia Jews. A small number of Jews were among the tens of thousands of new migrants who pushed into Fulton, Franklin, and southern Cumberland counties by the eve of the Civil War. When abolitionistmarker John Brown appeared in Chambersburg in the fall of 1859 with plans to raid Harper's Ferry and incite a slave insurrection in Virginia, there were perhaps a dozen Jewish families living in the entire area. Most were shopkeepers or peddlers involved in the trades.

Although there was no established synagogue in the Chambersburg-Waynesboro area, by 1840 the small community of Jews in Franklin County had established the Israelite Benevolent Society and a Chevrah (or Hevrah) Kaddishah, or Holy Burial Society. Each was said to be first such institution west of Philadelphia. Known historically as the "Old Jewish Cemetery," the Chambersburg cemetery has been a fixture in local life since its consecration in 1844. Through war and peace, and a century and a half of dramatic social and economic change in the rural landscape, the cemetery has survived. Though it fell into disrepair, in 2000 the Jewish cemetery was faithfully restored with the support of Jewish and Christian congregations, and other friends from throughout the area.
Entrance to the Israel Benevolent Society Cemetery - Chambersburg, PA
Entrance to the Israel Benevolent Society Cemetery, Chambersburg, PA, consecrated...

The Benevolent Society and its cemetery have their origins in the desire of local Jews to observe traditional rituals of death and internment. Steeped in the tradition of remembrance and the preservation of life, observant Jews show respect by staying with the deceased even as burial preparations are completed. The Chevra Kaddishah is a voluntary society whose purpose is to care for the dead. Following custom, a tombstone is erected after the body is placed in the grave so that the dead will be remembered.
Gravestone of Confederate soldier Isaac Burgauer, Old Jewish Cemetery, Chambersburg,...

Small in numbers and with limited financial resources, the community had its religious needs met by itinerant rabbis or by student rabbis from New York or Philadelphia. In the absence of a synagogue, Jews met in private homes to observe holy days, festivals, and other ceremonies. Rituals of burial and remembrance continued in the cemetery under the supervision of local members.

In March 1919, Franklin County issued its first charter for a synagogue. Two months later, leaders purchased a building for worship and social functions and made plans for a Hebrew School. Twenty years later community leaders acquired the larger Evangelical United Brethren Church building on East King Street. Only after the Second World War, in 1946, did Cantor Samuel Tobey organize a Hebrew and Sunday School.

As the decades passed, and as younger members left for college or work elsewhere, the Jewish community's numbers declined not just in Chambersburg, but in Bellefonte, Philipsburg, and other towns across the Commonwealth, as modern chain stores displaced storekeepers and the families that owned and operated them. Unable to secure the services of a full-time rabbi, the Congregation Sons of Israel in 2010 continued to rely on a part-time rabbi and rabbinical students who served interim appointments.

In 2000, James Wolfson began a campaign to restore the Israel Benevolent Society Cemetery to its former prominence. Years of neglect, and several recent incidents of vandalism and desecration, had compromised the property. A number of other congregations donated monies or man-hours to the cause. With local financial support and the guidance of cemetery restoration experts, Wolfson and his volunteers repaired fences, cleared the grounds, and restored many of the seventy-five tombstones on the property. As Wolfson observed in a newspaper interview, "This is not just a Jewish effort. This belongs to Chambersburg and the neighborhood." In 2002 a state historical marker commemorated the social and historical importance of the Old Jewish Cemetery and the 150-year history of Jewish life in the surrounding area.
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