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Philadelphians Recall a Rousing 55-Year Parade of Religious Life
For Diana Gottlieb, seeing the large ballroom at Beth Emeth-B'nai Yitzhok filled with more than 200 people dancing, singing and talking about the good old days put a smile on her face. She talked with friends she hadn't seen in years, looked through old photo albums and even danced the hora.
Gottleib, 77, is the co-president of the Conservative synagogue, located in the Oxford Circle area of Northeast Philadelphia, and this 55th anniversary party, held on June 26, even brought out members who normally wouldn't attend regular congregational functions.
"They all came out," she said. "Everyone that was available and wasn't sick and could walk, came out. With the walkers, with the canes and some with wheelchairs, but they all came out."
Rabbi Mitchell Romirowsky, 55, said that he feels the summer celebration has left a lasting imprint on the members of the synagogue.
"The sense of good cheer is still present now, all of these weeks since the event," said Romirowsky, who is heading his 10th year at Beth Emeth.
'Enthusiasm and Excitement'
Beth Emeth Congregation's history began in 1949, when nine couples in the area began meeting at each other's houses, wrestling with the idea of starting a Conservative synagogue.
Back then, Oxford Circle was home to many Jewish families. World War II had just ended, and the area's low-cost housing provided the opportunity to create a budding Jewish community.
"This is an area that grew up with people who were looking to buy, in many cases, their first homes," said Romirowsky, himself an Oxford Circle native. "[They] came back from World War II full of enthusiasm and excitement, and wanted to establish a synagogue at the same time."
In the 1960s, Beth Emeth saw the height of its popularity: The synagogue boasted a membership of around 950 families and taught close to 900 students in its Hebrew school, according to past president Milton Jacobs, 81.
But over time, the neighborhood changed; with each passing year, more and more Jews gradually moved away. Many synagogues closed down or were forced to merge with others.
"Some of those people … have found their way to Beth Emeth," said Romirowsky. "Even people who have moved out of the Lower Northeast into the Far Northeast - or in some cases, have moved across the bridge in New Jersey - still maintain their memberships with the synagogue because it continues to be a vital part of their lives."
In 1986, Beth Emeth joined forces with Congregation B'nai Yitzhok in what Gottlieb described as a rousing Torah parade to celebrate the link.
"They walked their Torahs all the way from B and the Boulevard up to here," recalled Gottleib. "A couple hundred people. It was just marvelous."
Today, albeit with a decreased attendance, Beth Emeth-B'nai Yitzhok boasts an active Sisterhood and Men's Club. On Shabbat mornings, it regularly draws between 40 and 55 people, said the rabbi, and maintains an afternoon minyan as well.
"Some of that has to do with the sense of camaraderie - and the fact that we have a nice kiddush," said the rabbi. "Our membership of about 250 to 270 families is very active. The synagogue continues to be a hub in their lives."