Congregation to Plant Some Permanent Roots

A Chester County Reform congregation that has multiplied from 12 to 150 families in a little more than a decade, has worshiped in a bunch of different places: congregants' private homes, on the grounds of West Chester University, even in a historic barn owned by a Lutheran Church, carting prayerbooks and Torah scrolls from place to place.

Now, nearly two years after they purchased 6.6 acres of undeveloped land in Malvern, members of Beth Chaim Reform Congregation are hopeful that construction on their much anticipated building can begin early next year.

"What we've realized is that it's really hard to do this," said building committee chair Sarah Peck, referring to everything from finding the property to raising the money for construction – and then getting all the required zoning approvals and building permits.

The congregation had hoped to break ground this summer, but the East Whiteland Township's planning commission and board of supervisors have yet to give their final approvals for the project. Peck said she is hopeful that both will give their thumbs up by the end of October.

Two Stages of Work
The plan calls for two stages of construction.

The first phase, at a projected cost of $2.7 million – Beth Chaim has raised $1.2 million so far – includes an 8,000-square-foot structure housing a sanctuary, social hall and office space. The second phase, which could be years from fruition, entails the construction of a Hebrew school.

According to Peck, finding land on which to build in Chester County was no small feat.

It's been nearly five years since congregants began to think seriously about a home of their own, but a location was difficult to come by due to fierce competition from residential real estate developers and, to a lesser extent, commercial developers. The congregation looked at more than 200 potential properties, according to Peck.

Finally, in early 2004, it purchased the undeveloped land in Malvern, about a mile west of where Route 202 and Route 401 intersect, close to the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The land, which is expected to accommodate a 200-space parking lot in addition to the synagogue building, previously belonged to Philadelphia Memorial Park, which operates several burial grounds.

Beth Chaim is one of six synagogues in Chester County proper, all located a good distance from one another. The shul's new site just happens to sit near the Haym Salomon Memorial Park, another Jewish presence.

"We were thrilled when we found this site," said Peck, noting that most members live within a 25-minute drive.

The features of the property contain a natural stream that's subject to a host of environmental regulations – Peck said "a typical homebuilder wouldn't be able to make the numbers work.

"It really didn't lend itself to residential development, but it was perfect for us."