Stan has a true passion for life. He has a passion for his work. A passion for the Jewish faith and its history and a passion for his family and the love of his life, Carolyn, to whom he’s been married for over 60 years.
Stan retired at 66. “I’m not really sure why I retired. I didn’t have to. I had the idea that turning 65 is when people are supposed to retire. So, I hung on an extra year,” Stan said.
Twenty two years later, he’s still working, but now he is doing it on his own schedule.
“It was a great joy going to work,” Stan said. He was a Cooperative Extension Specialist in Community Planning for the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology. He explained it as “basically giving away knowledge to the community, the mission of all Land Grant colleges in the United States.”
Now, he puts that knowledge to work at the Planning Education Institute, which he helped establish while he was working at Penn State. The Institute focuses on teaching community planning and land use to local elected and appointed officials and attorneys. It serves 1,000 students a year.
“I like it because it keeps me involved and keeps me relevant. I did not give up my career when I retired,” Stan said.
He now works as much as he wants to. “Carolyn (his wife) thinks I spend 10 hours a day working. I don’t. But if she wants to live with that fiction, that’s ok,” Stan said.
Finding a Place to Belong
Stan and Carolyn also spend their retirement supporting and maintaining the Agudath Achim synagogue in Huntingdon, PA.
Stan and Carolyn became involved with the synagogue after seeing an advertisement in the late 1990s. “Frankly, we did not have a place where we felt comfortable in terms of our religious activities,” Stan said.
They decided, along with another couple, to drive the 31 miles to Huntingdon to celebrate the High Holiday days.
Their first impression? “Frankly, we were captivated. The people were warm, they were friendly. It was very welcoming. We joined up,” Stan said.
The synagogue was led by the members. Only three times in its history did it have a rabbi. “It was a very home-grown operation,” Stan said. It was very different from the more traditional background that he had grown up in, but he and Carolyn knew that they had found a home.
But like many religious institutions, the number of members was dwindling. As the original members and the next generation of the original members grew older, moved on, or passed away, Stan and Carolyn became more central to the operation. “It would have been easy to just end, but we felt there was a need to continue it,” Stan said.
Because the members owned the building and it was lay-led, the cost to continue to operate was manageable. However, some members began to wonder if it might make more sense to close down the synagogue and move the congregation to Altoona. One of the original members, Bernie Schwartz, said no. “We aligned with him,” Stan said.
Bernie was a local merchant who had a jewelry store and a musical instrument store in Huntingdon. “It was part of his tradition and he wanted to continue it,” Stan said.
Keeping the Doors Open
Stan and Carolyn became more involved in the running of the synagogue. Stan participated in the services and Carolyn handled the hospitality. Stan eventually became president of the synagogue board.
There was a couple who led the services and people enjoyed them, according to Stan. “It was loosey, goosey conservative. It wasn’t extreme in any fashion; however it built on traditions. It was easy to be part of the congregation,” Stan said.
Carolyn likes to talk about the phenomenon of people finding Agudath Achim. It has not only been a resource for the Jewish community, but the greater Huntingdon area as well.
She told a story about a foreign exchange student from Hungary, Sophia. She was attending Juniata College in Huntingdon. Growing up in Hungary, she was not allowed to practice her religion. The congregation took her in. When she completed her college years, she accepted a job at the local newspaper. There she met the son of the owner, fell in love, and married him. The congregation gave her a Bridal Shower, and to show her appreciation, she created bookmarks in English and Hungarian for the members.
There is a small cemetery close to the synagogue and they receive requests from the community to be buried there.
Saving the Synagogue
Agudath Achim was built between 1930 and 1934 and served the community well. “However, after all those years, it was showing its wear,” Stan said. He had already seen one synagogue deteriorate to the point where it had to be demolished, the Hillel Building at Penn State, where he would sometimes go for High Holidays. “The one thing I felt strongly about is I didn’t want to see that happen to this building,” Stan said.
“I was influential in making the decision to invest in the building, not allow it to deteriorate. In 2012, we redid the interior of the sanctuary. It looks gorgeous. There are replacement chandeliers, walls painted, what have you.” Two years ago, there was work done on the outside of the building such as brick work and other minor repairs.
“There was money in the bank. A small endowment and some CD funds,” Stan said which was used for the interior. For the exterior work, Stan instituted a campaign to buy a brick. “Buy a brick for 18 cents.” The number 18 is considered sacred in Hebrew because it is the same word as “life.” When you wish someone “l’chaim,” you are wishing them “long life.”
The building was so important to him because of his religious sense. “It comes from a sense that it is your responsibility as a Jew to maintain the synagogue. You don’t allow a religious building to just fall apart,” Stan said.
Many of Stan and Carolyn’s grandchildren have since their bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs at the synagogue.
The Synagogue as Tradition
To Carolyn and Stan, saving the Huntingdon Synagogue was not just about saving one building.
“You can think of the Huntingdon synagogue by itself, but Carolyn and I think about the regional context,” Stan said. There are synagogues in small towns throughout Pennsylvania. “They are individual religious institutions with no concept of how they fit into the larger context of Judaism and Jewish practice in Central Pennsylvania when it was the hinterlands. ” Through their research, Carolyn and Stan found out that many synagogues were started by traveling peddlers. who decided they wanted to put down roots and form a community. “This is the way that congregations formed,” Stan said.
“That’s what motivated us.”
Now there is a national Jewish Community Legacy Project which is bringing these individual congregations together by Zoom to learn more about how these communities developed in small rural towns throughout the country.
“I see it as not just the legacy of my grandchildren, but the legacy of development of Jewish practice in the wilderness. What are Jews doing there and how did they get there?” Stan said. “We finally have some greater sense of the regional context and that is what drives us,” Stan said.
Agudath Achim Now
Currently, there are a small number of families that are members; however, the congregation continues. There are monthly Zoom meetings and the congregation holds high holiday services. “We continue to offer services. It’s a minimal amount, but it continues the practice and people enjoy it,” Stan said.
One of the challenges to people attending services is the synagogue’s distance from State College., “It’s a forty-five minute drive from State College where many of the potential participants live. The distance dissuades people from coming.” However, Stan believes that the drive is part of the whole experience. “The drive down is preparation for the service. The sense of nature and God is part of the service. To me it’s part of the experience. It’s part of the joy. It’s not a schlep.”
Stan Lembeck’s advice to anyone thinking about retirement is “KEEP BUSY”. Stan and Carolyn are doing just that, but they are also giving back to the community. Between Stan’s work at the Institute and his and Carolyn’s work with the synagogue they are looking at not only their own futures, but also, the future of Central Pennsylvania and the tradition of Judaism in rural Pennsylvania.