Read this and more in The Jews of Lancaster (40MB PDF), a history by David Brener.
Lancaster, Pennsylvania may seem an unlikely landmark for American Jewish history, yet Jews have been here since the early 18th century and our congregation's cemetery is the fourth oldest Jewish burial ground in North America.
In 1740, Joseph Simon became the first practicing Jew to make a permanent home in Lancaster. He and a handful of relatives formed the core of Lancaster's first Jewish community. Simon provided a room in his home for worship, purchased two Torahs (bequeathed by Simon to Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia) and hired and housed the ritual slaughterers. In 1747 he and his friend Isaac Nunes Henriques, purchased a plot of land for a burial ground "for the Society of Jews in and about Lancaster." This cemetery on the north side of Liberty Street between Lime and Shippen Streets is still in use by the Congregation and has five headstones that date from the colonial period. Unable to find Jewish marriage partners in Lancaster, the children of these early settlers gradually left Lancaster and settled elsewhere. On Simon's death in 1804 there were no Jews left in Lancaster.
By the mid-1800s Jews began to return and in February 1855, Jacob Herzog, a shopkeeper, convened a meeting to establish a formal Jewish congregation. A group of twenty one men chose the name "Shaarai Shomayim"—"The Gates of Heaven"—and on November 17, 1856, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania granted the congregation its official charter. The congregation celebrates its history annually with a special "Charter Shabbat" service on the Friday evening closest to that date.
In those early years, Shaarai Shomayim services were held in members' homes or in rooms in stores owned by members. By September 1867, the congregation had its first permanent spiritual home, a small single story building at the corner of East Orange and North Christian Streets. This building, generally known both by members and the community as the Orange St. synagogue remained in use until the congregation moved to its present home at the northwest corner of Duke and James Streets in 1896.
In its first decades worship at Shaarai Shomayim was more or less Orthodox in style. German was the language of services, of the religious school, and of the congregation's records. It was Shaarai Shomayim's first professional rabbi, 20-year-old European-trained Morris Ungerleider who beginning in 1884 nudged the congregation towards Classical Reform Judaism, which was officially adopted in 1888.
Until the 1970s Shaarai Shomayim remained a Classical Reform congregation. Services were conducted in English with only a smattering of Hebrew and limited congregational participation. Musical accompaniment consisted of a paid choir and organ. But by the 1980s traditional practices began to reclaim their place in the life of the congregation. Renovations to the sanctuary in 1991 reflected a new, more inclusive style of worship.
While services continue in the 1896 sanctuary, our temple building has been expanded and refashioned. A building at 508 North Duke Street purchased in 1929 to provide classrooms for the religious school and office space was demolished in 1999 to enlarge the social hall space. Property purchased in 1959 for the new religious school was refashioned and incorporated in a new addition completed in 2000 to provide new office spaces and a larger, more functional religious school space.
Growth in membership, growth in physical facilities, and growth in activities all combine to capture the recent history of Congregation Shaarai Shomayim. Individual Rabbis working with lay leaders responded to changes in Reform Jewish practice to continually update worship and religious education. Increased membership and activity necessitated numerous expansions and modifications of our city property. And reawakening to the concept of tikkun olam has led to more social action both within our community and beyond.
Congregation Shaarai Shomayim remains a dynamic congregation that while remaining true to its long and proud history, is always looking forward.