A Brief History of Congregation Ohav Zedek
During the last decades of the 19th century, Austrian-Hungarian immigrants came to Northeastern Pennsylvania and settled in Wilkes-Barre and its neighboring towns. In the beginning, a group of about twenty-five families formed "minyanim" for services in private homes. On November 18, 1892, they were granted a charter and became a synagogue called Congregation Ohav Zedek Anshe Ungarn (Lover of Righteousness, Men of Hungary).
In 1893, the Congregation purchased title to a parcel of land in Hanover Township for use as a cemetery.
During the first ten years of its existence, the Congregation met in rented rooms and halls. The first services were held in the home of Mr. Samuel Engel.
In 1902, a synagogue building was constructed on what was then Canal Street (now Pennsylvania Avenue). This synagogue was referred to as the "Ungarishe Shul." In 1914, an additional plot was bought on State Street in the rear and adjoining the Synagogue for the erection of a Mikvah (ritual bath).
As membership increased, the need for a larger synagogue building became evident. In 1927, a committee was appointed to find a plot favorably located. The plot chosen, on the east side of South Franklin Street, was considered ideal since the worshippers would face Mizrach (East), in accordance with Jewish tradition.
In 1930, ground was broken, eight months later the cornerstone was laid, and on January 24, 1932 the official dedication was held for the present home of Ohav Zedek. An example of solid architectural simplicity and elegance, the Shul is one of the most beautiful in the United States.
With the progression of years, the membership changed. Families that had emigrated from other parts of Europe joined the Synagogue. In 1942, therefore, the "Ungarishe Shul" officially became Congregation Ohav Zedek of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
Through the years, the professional leadership of the Congregation has been noted for its learning and talents. Rabbis who have served Ohav Zedek include Samuel Pripstein, I. M. Davidson, Ephraim Wolfe, Jerome Kerzner, Dr. Herman Shulman, Mitchell Kornspan, Israel Kestenbaum, Dr. Moshe J. Yeres, Meir Rosenberg, Nachman Bruce, Raphael Nemetsky, and our present rabbi, David Kaplan.
The education of our children has always been of paramount concern to the Congregation. For many years, Ohav Zedek maintained a separate Religious School. Later it was administratively joined with the Community Talmud Torah, with classes held in the old Talmud Torah building on East Northampton Street, as well as in the South Franklin Street building.
In 1950, Rabbi Ephraim Wolfe founded the Israel Ben Zion Academy, a full-day school. Today, these educational institutions are amalgamated and housed in the United Hebrew Institute in Kingston.
With the Jewish population increasing in Kingston, a minyan for Shabbos services was formed in the early 1960s to accommodate the members who resided on the west side of the river. In 1962, the first High Holiday services were held in the United Hebrew Institute.
The summer of 1972 was probably the most trying time in the existence of the Congregation. In June of that year, the normally beautiful rippling Susquehanna River was transformed overnight into an ugly, rampaging torrent that brought unprecedented devastation and destruction to the entire Wyoming Valley.
Although the main floor of the Shul was untouched by the flood waters, the lower level, containing the Max Roth Auditorium, the Smulowitz Chapel, the offices, the kitchen, and the utilities was in shambles. The Herculean task of cleanup and restoration began immediately and by spring of 1973, Ohav Zedek returned with new energies.
By 1981, it had become clear that the future of Ohav Zedek would depend on its finding a greater source of income. Expansion of synagogue programs and the challenge of providing greater services for members, as well as escalating fixed costs, prompted the creation of the Synagogue's first Endowment Campaign. Nathan Schiowitz, for whom the endowment was named, made a challenge gift to the Synagogue of $125,000. The Congregation more than matched his generous gift and bolstered the Synagogue's treasury.
Years went by, and with them came the inevitable need for capital improvements to the half-century-old synagogue structure. Repairs to the steps, stained-glass windows, driveway, floors, and other needs once again necessitated additional funds. In November 1987, a second Schiowitz Endowment Campaign was launched, this time for $100,000. However, instead of an appeal to the membership for matching funds, it was decided that the Shul would encourage the establishment of individual and family endowments, grants, and gifts. Once again the members more than matched the funds. The Synagogue now has an active program of endowments, grants and gifts which serves as an ongoing source of income to meet the ever-growing needs.
To symbolize the membership's enduring strength, the Sisterhood celebrated its 60th anniversary only months later.
At long last, on September 20, 1992, the time had come to mark Congregation Ohav Zedek's most auspicious occasion. Beneath a clear blue sky, the friends and members of Ohav Zedek gathered at the foot of its steps once more - this time to kick off its long-awaited Centennial celebration. For the descendants of those original founders, as well as those who have joined the Synagogue's extended family along the way, it was an opportunity to look back at a century of accomplishment, and ahead to a future filled with hope.