A Slice of History

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In 1917, during the fifteenth anniversary celebration of the Keser Israel synagogue in Harrisburg, PA, news reached the celebrating Jews that Russian rebels had overthrown the czar and given Jews equal rights. This good news added to the joyous occasion and was taken as a positive omen by the congregation as it prepared to erect a new building.

At the time, the synagogue was led by R. Eliezer Silver, a leading scholar and an executive member of Agudas Ha-Rabbonim (Union of Orthodox Rabbis of America and Canada), of which he would later become president. As part of a fundraising effort, the congregation commissioned a “Golden Book” (Pinkas Ha-Zahav), a history of the synagogue which also named important members who contributed over the years in various ways and listed donors to the new building fund. Keser Israel’s current rabbi, R. Akiva Males, was kind enough to send me a copy of the historical document. (Click on images below to enlarge)

If I am reading the book correctly, a number of important rabbis contributed an unstated amount toward the effort. Or perhaps they merely lent their support. The rabbis include: R. Moshe Zevulun Margolies, President of the Agudas Ha-Rabbonim and rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan; R. Dov Levinthal, an executive of the Agudas Ha-Rabbonim and rabbi in Philadelphia; R. Yisrael Rosenberg, also an executive of the Agudas Ha-Rabbonim and founder of Ezras Torah; R. Dov Revel, listed as an instructor (Ram) at Yeshiva Rabbi Yitzchak Elchanan (RIETS); R. Chaim Hirschensohn of Hoboken and many others.

What is now called Kesher Israel used to be called Keser Israel, in this book both in Hebrew and on the English cover. It is still called Keser Israel in Hebrew but Kesher Israel in English. One theory is that R. Eliezer Silver objected to the name Kesher Israel because “kesher” implies a group of trouble-makers. Therefore, he changed the Hebrew name to Keser. However, the English cover of this book, which calls the synagogue Keser Israel, poses a challenge to that theory.

Keser Israel was founded in 1902 and was originally located directly across from the Pennsylvania state capital. However, the congregation had to move in 1917 when the government decided to expand its facilities. The synagogue relocated and, in 1949, moved again to its current location.

Jewish education in the synagogue initially consisted of a few teachers for the congregation’s children. However, in 1908 the synagogue opened a Talmud Torah for the entire city’s Jewish community.

R. Eliezer Silver became, in 1907, the Orthodox rabbi of all Harrisburg. In 1911, he began praying consistently in Keser Israel and moved his Chevrah Shas, Chevrah Mishnah and Chevrah Mikra to the synagogue. He taught regular classes in the morning and evening to these dedicated groups. This influx of devout Jews invigorated the synagogue and led to a new era in its history. Throughout the next few years, Keser Israel enjoyed active youth groups, teen lectures, various women’s societies, and more charitable groups.

In 1914, Harrisburg hosted the Va’ad Ha-Poskim (Halakhic Decisors) of Agudas Ha-Rabbonim, due in no small part to R. Silver’s position as Vice Chairman of the organization. Keser Israel hosted a dinner in honor of the distinguished rabbis and proudly served as the meeting place for the rabbis.

The book tells an interesting story that occurred not long before its writing. One day, two of the synagogue’s Torah scrolls were found removed from the ark, one of them broken. The vandals who committed this crime were never caught. However, on the insistence of the rabbi, all the synagogue’s Torah scrolls were inspected. All were declared valid except for the broken Torah, which contained previously unnoticed errors unrelated to the vandalism. Implicit in this telling is that the vandalism was heavenly notice about the scroll’s problems.

Like many American cities, Harrisburg has a rich Jewish history that deserves close attention. Some of it has been described in published books and a little slice was preserved in this 1917 fundraising booklet.

The recent history of the Keser Israel “Golden Book,” how it was recovered and returned, is discussed here: link.

R. Eliezer Silver’s time in Harrisburg is described in chapter 2 of R. Aaron Rakeffet-Rothkoff’s The Silver Era.



About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student recently served on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. Really interesting – I forwarded to my sister-in-law, whose family has been in Harrisburg for nearly 30 years now, to see what they always were told about the name. I always found it funny with the Kes(h)er Israel thing.

    My SIL just told me that the cornerstone says Keser, and they believe that it was always Keser but that some Litvaks pronounced ‘s’ as ‘sh’ and therefore it started getting called Kesher.

  2. It is listed as “Kesher Israel” in the 1917 American Jewish Yearbook. See the 1st entry on p. 392 in http://www.ajcarchives.org/AJC_DATA/Files/1917_1918_6_Lists.pdf

  3. IH – but as Gil noted, the book from the exact same year says 1917. (And I would think they’d be less likely to have erred on their name than an independent yearbook.)

  4. An enterprising researcher would look in the newspaper archives and government records as well. It is worth noting that “kesher” could be a transliteration of kes-her (כתר) and not just kesher (קשר) as is being assumed.

  5. To the best of my knowledge the term ‘R”M’ in traditional rabbinic hebrew means “Reish Mesivta” i.e. Rosh Yeshiva, not “Rav Moreh” i.e. “faculty” as it does in contemporary Hebrew. Dr. Revel was of course Rosh Yeshiva, not just a rebbe at REITS

  6. Litvaks pronounced ‘sh’ as ‘s’ [tish = tis], not the other way around

  7. Stan,
    Real Litvaks (my bubbe A”H) mess up the shs pronunciation both ways.

  8. In Google, search;
    Kesher Israel site:http://www.old8thward.com

    The Benson paper is worth a quick read. Note the 1902 reference to “Casseur Israel” and the context for the formation of the breakaway shul: “Kesher Israel was founded by those members of Chisuk Emuna who felt that the secular culture could be integrated into Orthodox Judaism without losing any of the principles or spirit of Orthodox Judaism”.

  9. Kesher Israel was in fact a break away from Chisuk Emuna.
    KI was more “modern” and CE insisted on keeping everything old world (i.e. absolutely no English derashos, announcements, etc.).
    Upon arriving in Harrisburg, Rabbi E. Silver first davened at CE and soon left CE and joined KI.
    The word is that some of the leadership at CE did something to make RES feel very unwelcome.
    According to some, they were upset at him for all the time he spent learning at the shul and using their electricity after services had already concluded.
    After he left for KI, CE continued as the Orthodox shul that wouldn’t cede an inch to American modernity.
    RES eventually left Harrisburg for MA and then OH.
    RES’ son Rabbi David Silver was KI’s rabbi for over 50 years.
    Over the years, he told the leadership of CE that they were fighting the wrong battles. By insisting so heavily on Yiddish, etc., they were alientaing their youth.
    Sure enough, in the 1950’s, CE went from being the “old world” Orthodox shul of Harrisburg, to being the very traditional Conservative shul in Harrisburg, and the Mechitazah disapeared.
    CE had a bad fire a few years ago & is now in the process of rebuilding.
    The two shuls get along very well on many important matters of interest to Harrisburg’s Jewish community.
    See here for more:

  10. It hit me this morning that the name on the cornerstone of Kesher Israel in Georgetown (Washington, DC) is also Kesser Israel.
    I don’t think I ever asked Rabbi Barry Freundel if he knew the reason for that though.
    The newspaper write up at the time of the cornerstone laying calls the Shul Kesher Israel though.
    See here:
    As such, I don’t know what happened there.

  11. The solution appears to be that it is an archaic, improvised spelling and the h is not meant to be pronounced, or possibly it is to indicate that it is supposed to be softer than if it was spelled with a double s (ss), and “Keser” could not work altogether.

    From a book published in 1890:

    “At Amsterdam, Rabbi David Cohen De Laba published
    part of his Rabbinical Talmudical Lexicon called Kesher
    (Crown of Priesthood), with the meaning of each
    word, in the Chaldean, Syriac, Arabic, Persian, Turkish,
    Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German,
    Saxon, and English languages. At his death, after a labor
    of forty years, he had got only as far as Yod, the tenth
    letter. ”

    From a book about Jews in Colorado:

    “Congregation Kesher Avahoss (“Crown of Brotherly Love”) and worshipped in a small building which they erected in 1906.”

  12. Ralph, the DC shul says “Kosher Israel,” with the kaf corrected to a kuf.

  13. “Stan,
    Real Litvaks (my bubbe A”H) mess up the shs pronunciation both ways”

    My understanding is the “sh” as “s, like Meyse (Moshe) depended on what area of Lita you resided in.

  14. Funny given all the sticklers for “mesorah” in pronunciation, that no seems quite sure nor do they seem to be interested in preserving this “sh” being discussed…

  15. Lithuanian pronunciation in general is dying/dead. No one pronounces “ay” for a cholam, either.

  16. “No one pronounces “ay” for a cholam, either.”

    Not true. That one survives, albeit weakened, much more than s /sh, which I agree is gone, apart for a few very old people.

  17. Chabadskes preserve it or try to. I try to preserve it but I doesn’t sound like the way an alte Mirrer a”h who I know pronounced it. 🙂

  18. Re Litvish pronunciation, there are two separate things here.

    One is Sabesdiker losn, on which see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sabesdiker_losn

    Another is the old Litvish pronunciation of the cholam (chaylom or chaylem).

    As stated by the famous Yiddish expert Professor Dovid Katz (http://www.dovidkatz.net/), in the wake of the Sabesdiker losn pronunciation being heavily stigmatized, and people going to modern educational institutions, it has just about disappeared (just like certain extreme regional accents and dialects elsewhere).

    The chaylem pronunciation, although also greatly declined, has fared much better relatively, and is far from being extinct at this point in time. It can still be heard at times among some old Litvaks (non-Hassidim), as well as among Lubavitcher Chassidim, and perhaps some other Litvishe Chassidic groups as well (I recall hearing Professor Allan Nadler say that he went to a tisch of the Slonimer Rebbe in Yerushalayim years ago and was shocked to hear him start kiddush on Friday night with ‘Yaym Hasisi…’).

  19. Perhaps going but not gone. My brother and I still speak Yiddish and pronounce it the litvishe manner as I do in hebrew when I daven before the amud.Some other old time Lubavitcher do too as do some BT lubavitcher seekign to be mroe Catholic than the Pope. of course the last Rebbe was maedayek in this
    Lithuanian jews substituted an s sound for a sh both in Yiddish and hebrew. After world war 1 there was a tendency to mainstream the pronunciation especially in the Hebrew side. Except for Northern Lita the sabbesdike lashon was lost although it still creeps in even among White russian jews. But the commenttators are correct there was a general confusion betwen the s and sh sound . Some time my late father said where is the Shiddur.
    I ahvenoted elsewhere that a recent bio of Reb Shimen Shkop states that after WW1 the talmidim started using a more standard manner of Hebrew and I saw this with my late Rav rav Shimen Romm of RIETS.
    In recent years Hungarian jews have become proud of their pronunciation and perhaps i can use this occassion to urge my Lithuanian White Russian comrades to do the same.Lets drop the oy and go back to the ay the oy is for Polish jews not for Litvishe Yidden.

  20. Take the oy out of Toyrah! Torah learning makes people happy. It is not something to mourn. So what is an oy doing in it?

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