Chisuk Emuna’s history is a part of its everyday outlook. In 1883 a group of immigrants, all recently arrived in Harrisburg from the northern areas of the province of Kovno, Lithuania, founded Chiska Emuna bene Russia – the Strengtheners of Faith of the Children of Russia. The 1883 Constitution states that Chiska Emuna would follow the ritual of the Lithuanian communities they had left, in Jewish terms, the non-Hasidic intellect-based Judaism identified with Lithuania. The new congregation functioned partly as an Orthodox shul and partly as a benevolent society guaranteeing its members such things as assistance in case of sickness or injury. These were critical concerns to newcomers in an unfamiliar land.
Chisuk Emuna has always been reluctant to change but, in fact, it is nothing like its ancestor Chiska Emuna. The immigrant population first gave way to businessmen and then to a mix of professionals, business persons and government employees, all the while retaining a traditional “small c” conservative outlook based upon its roots. The congregation’s first three homes were in the immediate vicinity of the Capitol building, in the midst of the Jewish population at the time. The first and second homes disappeared with the creation of the state building complex in 1915 and its third home, on Forster Street, was occupied for more than forty years.
By the end of World War II, the shul’s immigrant orientation and resistance to Conservative style services in English no longer served the congregation, and its location had become problematic for most of the membership, which had moved “uptown.” The result was the inauguration of the most dramatic changes in the congregation’s history. The shul built its present building on Division Street in 1956. This move was far more than a change in building because the new congregation was now a dynamic English speaking shul newly inducted into the Conservative movement.
The name also changed. Chisuk Emuna – Strength of Faith – is a great distance from the Strengtheners of Faith of the Children of Russia. That congregation looked backwards towards small Jewish communities that by 1955 no longer existed. This congregation now looks forward. Its original role as a mutual-help benevolent society is now expressed as pride in its hamishe friendliness and its willingness to welcome newcomers and immediately include them in ritual and congregational activities, as though they had been in the community for many generations.