While many non-Orthodox synagogues are struggling to maintain their existing structures and keep up membership numbers, a nearly-completed Chabad center is teeming with activity.
Rabbi Shaya Deitsch was moving quickly through his brand new synagogue, trying to reach the nursery school kids to give them a Chanukah demonstration on how to use an olive oil press. But he kept getting interrupted.
A repairman had arrived to check the status of the new refrigerator, while Deitsch’s cell phone and office phone took turns ringing. At the same time, the sound of workers laying tar on the new parking lot competed with pounding from the back of the building, where contractors were constructing a wooden deck.
Two weeks after its grand opening, the $4 million Lubavitch of Montgomery County Center for Jewish Life and Learning still feels like a work in progress. Indeed, the wooden beams are still exposed in the section of the building that will house the planned mikveh, a first for this section of Montgomery County.
But the two-story, 14,000-square-foot structure in Fort Washington — which sits directly across the street from a church and a horse pasture and down the road from Upper Dublin High School — is already hosting religious services, Hebrew school and other programs.
“The idea was to build a building that was not just a shul, but would be the center for many activities. Obviously, synagogue services, preschool and Hebrew school, but really community stuff in general” will be taking place in the new structure, said Deitsch, a 41-year-old father of eight.
The completion — or near completion — of the building on a two-acre plot of land comes at a time when many non-Orthodox synagogues are struggling to maintain their existing structures and keep up membership numbers. In recent years, synagogue closures and mergers have been the norm, while openings have been the exception. One of those exceptions is Temple Judea of Bucks County, a Reform synagogue in Doylestown that is currently erecting a new building.
In the past decade and a half, the Chabad Lubavitch movement, with its focus on Jewish engagement and a model based on donations rather than memberships, has grown by leaps and bounds in the region. Currently, there are more than 30 Chabad emissaries in the Philadelphia region, and it seems like every year, two or three new Chabad houses appear. But it’s been years since Chabad built a brand new structure in the region.
The center is meant to serve an area of eastern Montgomery County that sometimes is overlooked by the broader Jewish community but, according to the 2009 “Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia,” is home to at least 21,000 Jews. The same study found an estimated 25,000 Jews living around the Old York Road corridor and 15,000 around Lower Merion.
The center is situated near several large non-Orthodox congregations, including Congregation Beth Or, a Reform synagogue with more than 1,000 families that in 2006 opened a $19 million, 65,000-square-foot building in Maple Glen.
Deitsch said he is not sure of the numbers, but the area has more than enough Jews of all observance levels who are looking to connect. And competition and choice, he said, only benefits the community.
“People who are coming are not religious today. But they are interested in Judaism and they want to enjoy the experience,” said the rabbi. “Although I’m an Orthodox Jew, obviously, that’s not a hindrance to them. They are coming to learn what Judaism has to offer and to learn in a warm environment.”
On Dec. 4, roughly 500 people attended the official opening of the center, which is named after philanthropists Israel and Sari Roizman, who live in nearby Lafayette Hill.
Roizman, a well-known developer who was a major donor to President Barack Obama’s campaign and is active in pro-Israel causes, noted that he’s involved with both Lubavitch and Tifereth Bet Israel, a Conservative synagogue in nearby Blue Bell. In his view, the more options available in Montgomery County,, the better.
“They are doing a wonderful job with education and maintaining the Jewish tradition and teaching kids all the right stuff,” Roizman, who would not disclose the amount he gave to the project, said of the Chabad efforts.
Rabbi Adam Wohlberg of Temple Sinai, a Conservative synagogue in nearby Horsham, said the opening shows people don’t have to leave Upper Dublin to engage with Judaism.
Deitsch and his wife, Devorah, founded Lubavitch of Montgomery County 16 years ago and have until now rented space at various locales. Next year, for the first time, Lubavitch of Montgomery County — which also employs two other rabbis — will host High Holidays in its own building. Leaders hope to grow the Hebrew school beyond its current 55 students and get its preschool off the ground in earnest. Currently, the preschool only has five students.
Melissa Zlotnikoff, a 41-year-old mother of two who lives in Maple Glen, first met Devorah Deitsch at the local library four years ago and decided to enroll her son at the Chabad Hebrew school. Now, both of her children attend the supplementary school and the family has become active in Chabad programming and services.
Like nearly all involved in the Hebrew school, the Zlotnikoffs are not Orthodox.
“Our experience, through the kids, has enhanced us as a total family with regards to Judaism,” she said. “All of their programs and everything that they do is done with such care, with such enthusiasm that I can only imagine that this new building will provide their programming with the opportunity to be even better.”