Moving the Mikveh
Wilkes-Barre is a city of some 60,000 inhabitants in an economically depressed area of northeastern Pennsylvania. Earlier in this century, the region’s rich deposits of anthracite (hard) coal supported a prosperous mining industry, but by 1961 employment in the mines had been reduced from a high of 67,000 (1926) to a mere 5,500 men. As the market for coal continued to shrink, it seemed that the best thing an unemployed miner could do was to leave town—if he didn’t mind pulling up his roots, if he wasn’t too old, if there was any other kind of work he could do or learn, and if he had friends or relatives who would help him settle elsewhere. Over the years, thousands of miners did leave, and a kind of despair settled over Wilkes-Barre.
Recently, however, the city has experienced a measure of economic revival: it has managed to attract new industry, including parts of the New York garment industry; and it has ventured upon an ambitious program of urban renewal. Included in the redevelopment project was State Street, a dark alley between the downtown business area and the wholesale produce district. The object here was to raze the city’s red-light district. However, not all the shabby buildings on State Street were houses of ill repute; indeed, one of the doomed sites housed Wilkes-Barre’s mikveh, the ritual bath maintained by the city’s Orthodox Jewish community. The relocation of this mikveh was to prove more controversial than anyone had anticipated.
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