By Mary Therese Biebel, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader
WILKES-BARRE — “I’m definitely not a runner,” Paula Chaiken said with a smile, explaining why she was standing in front of the Jewish Community Center with about 100 other people on a cold recent Tuesday evening rather than sprinting across the Market Street Bridge.
It was the first night of Hanukkah, and spectators were eagerly awaiting a dozen runners — including Chaiken’s husband, Joe Kraus — who were bringing a torch the 1.7 miles from Temple B’nai B’rith in Kingston to light the Menorah outside the JCC on Wilkes-Barre’s South River Street.
“I’ve lived all over the world, and I’ve never experienced anything like this anywhere else,” Chaiken said of the annual Torch Run, adding she’s also enjoyed bringing her children to pre-school programs and swim lessons at the JCC when they were younger.
“My family moved here 17 years ago from Chicago,” she added, “and we’ve been embraced by this small but vibrant community.”
A vibrant, neighborly kind of feeling did seem to permeate the atmosphere outside the JCC, as families looked forward to sharing the Jewish Community Alliance’s annual Hanukkah dinner, complete with potato pancakes called latkes, and singing “Ma’or Tzur,” which translates to “Rock of Ages,” and “Dreidel, Dreidel Dreidel.”
“How’s your Hebrew?” Rabbi Larry Kaplan asked Wilkes-Barre Chief of Police Marcella Lendacky, who was standing nearby, teasing he expected her to join in the songs.
“You don’t want me sing,” the chief replied with a laugh.
Lendacky said she was glad to see people in Wilkes-Barre joyfully celebrating their heritage during the Jewish Festival of Lights, and noted that just a few blocks away, another celebration — complete with an outdoor procession — was taking place at the same time in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
While the Hanukkah celebration commemorated a miracle during which one day’s supply of oil is said to have burned for eight days in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration commemorated a miracle during which the mother of Jesus is said to have appeared and spoken to a Mexican peasant named Juan Diego.
An image of the Blessed Mother is believed to have miraculously appeared on Juan Diego’s clothing, which is why some of the several hundred people who attended a Spanish Mass at St. Nicholas Church wore shirts that depicted the Lady.
Children and adults wore ethnic outfits inside the packed church, some with sombreros and colorful scarves, and many little boys sported mustaches drawn on their faces to resemble Juan Diego. A mariachi band provided music and volunteers passed out hundreds of roses to worshippers in honor of the Reina del Cielo, or Queen of Heaven, as they left the church and headed to a party in the nearby school hall.
The best part of the day, said Leslie Torres, of Wilkes-Barre, was participating in a procession that had made its way slowly, with pageantry and dancing, from the Heights section of Wilkes-Barre across the South Street Bridge to the church on South Washington Street in time for the evening Mass.
Arts, culture everywhere
Just about any community in Luzerne County might claim an uptick in special events in December, but Wilkes-Barre seems to have more than most and attracts people from surrounding towns.
“We come here every year,” said Joseph Faust, of Courtdale, who attended a Service of Advent Lessons and Carols at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church on South Franklin Street with his wife, Carmella, on a recent Wednesday evening. “We’ll be going to Little Theatre’s play (“A Christmas Carol”), too.
“It’s a very beautiful service, very uplifting,” said Chris Sutton, a deacon from Prince of Peace Church in Dallas who was part of the crowd at St. Stephen’s that listened to musical arrangements and biblical passages about lions lying down with lambs and hills flowing with milk and honey.
“A lot of people don’t know this is here in their midst,” said St. Stephen’s choir member Lisa Daris, of Dallas, referring to a year-round schedule of musical events. “If every person who was here would tell one other person, that would be wonderful.”
People who work in Wilkes-Barre might have found it convenient to attend the Advent service, which started at 6 p.m. It also was convenient if you live downtown, said Grace Mack, of Wilkes-Barre, who lives near King’s College and took a short walk to the service.
Sutton, who recently retired after a career working for Head Start, lives in the Back Mountain and said she now will have more time to attend arts and educational events in Wilkes-Barre.
Recent events that were free to the public range from an exhibit of Andy Warhol’s work at the Wilkes University Sordoni Art Gallery to a concert by St. Bernardine’s Gospel Choir to British scholar Robert Geyer’s lecture on Brexit. Those last two events were at King’s College.
Organizers of other events often ask for only a nominal admission fee, such as Teatro Lirico D’Europa’s traveling production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” offered at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts for $10 a ticket, and the Wyoming Valley Art League’s staged reading of “A Christmas Carol” at the Circle Centre for the Arts, where the suggested donation was $5.
‘This is our home’
But Wilkes-Barre is more than a conglomeration of arts and culture. Once a leader in the production of the anthracite that fueled the Industrial Revolution, now it’s a place where people teach and study from the pre-school to the post-graduate levels, staff hospitals and health clinics, and work in city, county, state and federal offices.
They argue cases at the courthouse. Conduct research. Protect the streets. Clean the streets. Staff a wide variety of retail outlets. And volunteer.
When it comes to food, folks prepare it in a variety of styles — you’ll find French, Thai, Jamaican, Italian, Japanese, Mexican, Chinese and American cuisine, all within a few blocks of Public Square — and they keep the shelves stocked at larger supermarkets as well as smaller neighborhood bodegas.
They even produce two rival daily newspapers — once a common situation in cities across the country; now quite rare.
Peruse enough news reports and you’ll find evidence the city of 40,569 is no stranger to crime, opioid addiction, budgetary woes and a 30.1 percent poverty rate.
But you can turn the pages of your newspaper and read about people trying to help, whether they’re putting food on the tables at the St. Vincent dePaul Kitchen on East Jackson Street, collecting toys and coats for people of limited means, or arranging an afternoon of fun, as Hourigan, Kluger & Quinn did on a recent Saturday afternoon.
Courtesy of the local law firm, 1,800 children and adults were treated to a free showing of the Disney movie “Moana” — plus refreshments and small gifts — at the F.M. Kirby Center.
“We’ve been in this community for over 50 years,” HKQ business manager Sue Greenfield said on movie day. “This is our base, this is our home, and we just want to give back to the community and say ‘thanks.’”