Congregation Agudath Achim of Huntingdon was formed in the early 20th century. By then, there were enough Jewish men in Huntingdon for the minimum number needed for a minyan to hold a religious service. It was not a “formal” congregation; that came later. The name, Agudath Achim, is translated as “Congregation of Brethren.”
In those early years, before a synagogue building, congregants met in various places; a storeroom someplace on Penn Street, the second floor of the Grand Theater on Mifflin Street, and the second floor above a grocery store at 9th and Moore Streets.
In 1920 the Congregation was formally established. Fifteen men of the Congregation signed the application for a charter of incorporation. The decree granting incorporation was signed by the president judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Huntingdon Country, Thomas Bailey, in December 1920.
When the building of the synagogue began in 1930-- it took about four years to complete-- there were 30 Jewish families in Huntingdon. This number was augmented by families living in nearby Mount Union. In terms of numbers, the 1930s and 1940s were the high points. Only three times in the history of the Congregation has it had a resident rabbi, all during the 1930s and 40s.
One hundred-plus year is a long time in the life of any institution.
In the 21st century, Congregation Agudath Achim continues to serve Jews in Central Pennsylvania in the same way as the founding members, being innovative and collaborative in where and how to worship and celebrate Judaism.
Congregation Agudath Achim of Huntingdon was formed in the early 20th century. The Congregation’s high point was in the 1930s and 40s, with 30 families from Huntingdon and several others from nearby Mount Union joining to support a rabbi. Only three times in the history of the Congregation has it had a resident rabbi, all during this time.
World War II intervened, and many of the men of the Congregation went into the army and navy. For the size of the group, the number of service members was impressive. One of them, Bernie Swartz, attended the hearings in Nuremberg. Another involved hiding Jewish children and arranging for them to get to Palestine. After the war, a chapter of the Jewish War Veterans was formed at the synagogue.
The 1950s saw the beginning of the exodus of Jewish families from Huntingdon, and they were still being replaced by new ones moving in. This continued until 1980, when only seven active families and fewer than 30 people left. The future of the Congregation and its synagogue was uncertain.
High energy costs and dwindling numbers forced the Congregation to rethink its approach. The group returned to its workshop practices of 50 years earlier, meeting in homes. In the words of one member, Patience Aaronson, “that kept us together; kept us close.”
The nagging problem of what to do with the building, whether to abandon it, sell it, or do something else, persisted. In 1980 the Congregation celebrated its 50th anniversary and dedicated its refurbished social room, and throughout the 1980s and 1990s, this small group maintained the Congregation with services conducted by lay leaders. The synagogue building was in good shape, somewhat underside, but continuously served the religious needs of the area Jews. However, the future again was bleak without an infusion of new congregants.
In the 1990s, as a final reaching out to members, an advertisement was placed in the Centre Daily Times inviting people to the High Holiday Services. There was a response to the ad by several families from State College, Warriors Mark, Mount Union, and outlying areas. As it always had been, Congregation Agudath Achim is a regional congregation.
Today, our current membership is a diverse group with various Jewish and other backgrounds, traditions, and rituals. While we don’t share the “sameness” as the founding members did, it is a welcoming congregation willing to find ways to allow everyone to practice their Judaism. We consider that a strength, not a weakness. Like the founding group, our services are lay-led, which permits full participation and ownership by everyone.
While a congregation is not a building- a congregation is people—we are close to the beautiful synagogue on Washington Street in Huntingdon. Our responsibility has been to maintain and improve the building, ensuring its physical integrity is secured. The sanctuary was completely restored in 2013. Air conditioning units were installed at about the same time to make worship services in the sanctuary more comfortable. Replacement chandeliers were installed. The kitchen was upgraded with new water pipes, counters, and cabinets. The restrooms were upgraded and repainted.
Some years earlier, in 2005, two Juniata College students and a group of their friends landscaped the grounds, contributing to the neighborhood we have proudly been part of for nearly 100 years.
In 2021, the exterior brickwork was repointed to prevent water damage, and loose bricks near the rooftop were replaced for safety. To protect the building's signature stained glass (Mogen David rose window), a plastic covering was installed to protect it from damage. Continuous wrought iron fencing extending from the neighboring corner mansion property to the edge of the synagogue property, and a unique wrought iron entrance gate, were installed for beauty and security. A Cove Monitory system was established in 2022 at each entry point, and motion detection devices were placed in the sanctuary and social rooms to add to the building's security.
Today, we grapple with national security concerns that threaten all Jewish communities, big and small. When services are held at the synagogue on High Holidays, arrangements are made with the Huntingdon Police to provide on-site security. This is an additional cost to the congregation but one that is necessary at this time.
The generations are linked to each other–dor l'dor. We respect our past; we honor it. We believe we are responsible for sustaining Congregation Agudath Achim and its synagogue into the future. By restoring and preserving the sanctuary, we help strengthen our ties with our faith, our friends and neighbors, and our community.
One hallmark of Agudath Achim is its involvement in the Huntingdon community. We had a close relationship with the Catholic Church for several years and held several joint Holocaust remembrance services with them at the church and our synagogue. We have hosted local church groups, including youth groups, to tour and see what a synagogue is like.
We are the designated “Hillel house” for the Hillel Association group at Juniata College. Over the years, Hillel students joined our Shabbat and High Holiday service. The building has been used for some student-organized events, such as their Freedom Seder at Passover time and a location for a student-run service during Parent’s Weekend.
CAA has a representative in the county Community Action Agency, and we are closely connected with the Huntington Food Bank. Volunteers have weekly picked up bread and pastries from a bakery in State College and helped deliver the items to the Huntingdon Food Bank for over ten years.
The generations are linked to each other–dor l’dor. We respect our past; we honor it. We believe we are responsible for sustaining Congregation Agudath Achim and its synagogue into the future. By restoring and preserving the sanctuary, we help strengthen our ties with our faith, friends, neighbors, and community.