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Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation celebrates 90 years


October 07, 2010
BETHLEHEM- Bethlehem's synagogue and it congregation last week celebrated its 90th anniversary amidst life-long members and new friends.

It was hay fever that first brought Jewish families to Bethlehem in the early 20th century, looking for temporary relief from the affliction in a time before medication could soothe its symptoms. By 1920 the Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation (BHC) was evolving to support the growing summer Jewish population.

Later in the century, the town blossomed into a family and health resort destination. Hotels lined the streets, many of them catering to the Jewish families that had grown attached to the country community in earlier years. In fact, the skyrocketing Jewish population was enough to warrant a kosher delicatessen and butcher.

"This really became a mini-Catskills," said Martin Kessel, chairman of the committee that organized the 90th anniversary event. In its heyday, the town had six trains a day bringing the many visitors into town, said BHC Cantor Marlena Fuerstman. A committee of the congregation's members worked for 18 months to organize the event, including conducting in-depth research into the history of BHC and the town. The congregation is even publishing a book with historic accounts from BHC's history.

With the fall of the hotels and the town's status as a summer destination, came the decline of the Jewish population. The synagogue's attendance dwindled, but its doors never closed. This past weekend's celebration was a testament to that fact, as members ate, laughed, and prayed together.

The Bethlehem Hebrew Congregation (BHC) marked the celebratory event first on Thursday and Friday with the observance of Simchat Torah, a holiday marking the end of one year's reading of the Torah and the beginning of the next. Services were held on Friday and Saturday to observe the Sabbath.

Attendees were also treated to a number of cultural events over the course of the weekend. Three symposia entitled History of the Congregation and Synagogue Building, Personal Relationships with BHC, and Bethlehem Hotels and the Jewish Connection saw past BHC presidents, members, and Bethlehem Heritage Society members speak. On Saturday evening, the Colonial Theatre hosted a screening of "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," a documentary covering the life of Gertrude Berg, a well-known radio and television personality during the 30s.

BHC is home to roughly 40 regular members, said President Dave Goldstone, though more than 300 make up the mailing list. Active members hail from all over the North Country, including Franconia, Lyman, Bretton Woods, Whitefield, Lancaster, Lincoln, Woodstock, Littleton, Easton, and, of course, Bethlehem. The synagogue is most active during the warmer months, May to October, when Cantor Fuerstman and Rabbi Hillel Millgram temporarily relocate from their permanent residences in Jerusalem to serve the congregation.

"When we first started going to the temple, you couldn't get in the door, now we're down to a few special people," said Roda Sakowitz, whose father served as president of BHC from 1968 to 1975. Sakowitz has been coming to Bethlehem for 69 years, and has not only seen the transformation of BHC, but of the whole community. Still, she comes back every summer, and finds plenty to do. "I love it. My children and grandchildren love it."

The Keshet family stumbled upon BHC's anniversary celebration by accident. The family came from Israel during school vacation to get Ariel, 12; Ayalla, 8; and Avishai, 4, American citizenship. The children's grandfather, Elliot Cohen, is from southern New Hampshire originally, but relocated to Israel many years ago. "We were supposed to go for 4 months, and we stayed for 31 years," he laughed.

They researched synagogues across New Hampshire and Vermont looking for places to worship during the High Holy Days. BHC gave them the most positive response, both online and in person so much so that they have changed their vacation plans to continue exploring New England to spend their last days in Bethlehem, said grandmother Veronika. "We liked the community so much. Everyone's so warm, so friendly," she said.

Ayalla has already made friends with local congregant Ada Cowan, 6, of Lancaster. The two spend Friday night's kosher barbecue playing together. One from thousands of miles away in a country with a very different Bethlehem, and one from 20 miles down the road, the two girls are one small example of what the congregation has been doing for the past 90 years: bringing people together from near and far, and giving them another home.

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