A Jewish Home in the Heart of the Highlands 

By Mark Lafer

Congregation Brit Shalom, at 620 East Hamilton Avenue, is the center for worship, cultural engagement, and religious celebrations for more than 350 residents of the State College area. The names of early members are permanent parts of the Highlands: Mimi Barash Coppersmith, the Sidney Friedman Parklet, and the Schlow Centre Region Library. It is home to a sanctuary, offices, meeting and social facilities, classrooms for religious education, and an affiliated nursery school.

Congregation Brit Shalom’s informal existence stretches back to the 1930s. When the Penn State chapter of the B’nai B’rith Hillel Foundation moved into quarters just across Beaver Avenue from the Highlands in 1935, many local families chose to make it the center of Jewish life in the community. This association continued, when in 1952, Hillel moved into its own building in the Highlands, at the southwest corner of Locust Lane and East Foster Avenue. All that remains of this first Jewish home in the Highlands is a magnificent copper beach tree that stands between the Acacia fraternity house and The Legend apartments.

Within two years, however, interest in creating a separate Jewish identity for the permanent residents of the State College area grew. This culminated with the formal organization of the Jewish Community Council of Bellefonte and State College—JCC for short—on June 6, 1954. Membership represented every segment of the Borough and surrounding communities: business leaders, university faculty and administrators, independent professionals, artists, craft persons, homemakers, and retirees.

The JCC formally incorporated late in 1957. It continued to use the Hillel building as its physical home, even as interest grew among some members for a separate home to go with its separate identity. In October 1961, the membership approved the idea. In 1963, formal fundraising for land and a structure began. Building on thirteen initial pledges, the JCC was able to purchase its East Hamilton Avenue location in 1964, with an additional, adjoining acquisition in 1969.

By 1965, ninety families had made a financial commitment for construction. The formal building dedication occurred on February 28, 1965. The Congregation began to offer the full range of intended services later that year. It is noteworthy that the original plans omitted a large worship space: many members were reluctant to sever the long-standing practice of participating in services at Hillel. The status quo ended with the dedication of a sanctuary addition in late 1983.

The evolution of the JCC has gone beyond the move to a formal organization and a physical home in the Highlands. Originally, the membership saw itself as part of a non-denominational, but traditional approach within American Jewry. In 1979, this changed to Reconstructionist, a significant decision that followed, at least in part, with the opportunity to have “one of our own” as Rabbi.

Then, as today, regardless of affiliation, the Congregation continues a commitment to offering support for life cycle events that meet the needs of all but the most orthodox-oriented members and area residents. This includes maintaining a kosher kitchen.

An additional change followed the completion of the sanctuary and the move to full independence from Hillel. The membership added Congregation Brit Shalom to the JCC name.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, the practicalities of bringing rabbis to central Pennsylvania resulted in a change in affiliation, from Reconstructionist to the Union for Reform Judaism, and an official name change to Congregation Brit Shalom (CBS).

The affiliation is a good fit. It supports the ongoing commitment of CBS as a welcoming Congregation. Our membership diversity spans varying Jewish traditions, ethnicities, gender identity, permanent and temporary residents, families in mixed marriages, and more.

Within the Highlands and the wider central Pennsylvania region, Congregation Brit Shalom engages in interfaith, charitable, educational, and cultural traditions. Other charitable and service organizations may use the social hall for events. Informal classes offer non-Jews insights into the religion and a deeper understanding of Judaism for those within the faith.

The annual Passover Seder, the fall outdoor celebration of Sukkot, and the Hadassah-sponsored food fair are all open to non-members. So are the occasional musical, film, and guest speaker offerings. Additionally, those wishing to observe Jewish worship respectfully are always welcome.

Looking forward into its seventh decade in the Highlands, Congregation Brit Shalom is in the process of building upgrades and working toward increased cooperation with Hillel, as that organization anticipates moving into its new home.

Finally, plans are underway for a public celebration to acknowledge the contributions of Rabbi Ostrich to both Congregation Brit Shalom and the community. He has led the congregation spiritually for thirteen years, and the event will take the form of a bar mitzvah.

(The author acknowledges the work of those who created the history for the Congregation Brit Shalom 50th jubilee as a resource for this article.)

Mark Lafer is in his fifth decade of conducting public-sector research and policy analysis for health care delivery and post-secondary education. He and his spouse Theresa moved to the Highlands in 1988. You can often see Mark walking in The Highlands with Hershey, one of the three standard poodles they have rescued over the last four decades.