Synagogue leaders maintain that the shift in focus for the benefit of its metropolitan campus – a circa-1928 monument of Moorish-inspired architecture on North Broad Street, modeled after the Great Synagogue in Florence, Italy – reflects the harsh realities of economics and demographics.
"It's become apparent that we're expending not just money and capital in the suburbs, but also a lot of energy," said Susan Klehr, president of the congregation that numbers more than 1,200 households. "Most synagogues our size spend 10 percent on maintenance. We spend 21 percent. That's money not being spent on our congregants."
Klehr emphasized that a probable sale of the suburban campus, dedicated in 1957 and located on High School Road in Elkins Park, will not affect the availability of activities for the nearly 33 percent of the membership body that use the facility. She said that renting out space in Elkins Park for some services is a possibility. Regarding the preschool housed in the suburban campus, Klehr said that discussions between the school and other locations are in the works.
After admitting a decision of this magnitude can be "painful" – not only for members but for leaders – Senior Rabbi William I. Kuhn said that he saw the road ahead as an opportunity, as the synagogue is seeking to reap the dividends of a surge in Center City Jewish life.
"People are moving into the city," said Kuhn. "There are residential developments popping up; there are all these things going on on the Avenue of the Arts North. We really believe in what we're doing."
According to Klehr, the final approval of the five-year strategic plan, which was finalized in November, will be taken up by the synagogue's board on Jan. 12.
While the sale of Rodeph Shalom's suburban campus is not a fait accompli, she said the congregation has few options short of capitalizing off of the satellite location's real estate value.
Referring to the strategic plan, which was commissioned by former synagogue president Tom Perloff, Klehr noted that Jewish families are moving out of Elkins Park to locations farther north; at the same time, Jews are moving into the city.
According to an analysis by Econsult Corporation and included as an appendix to the strategic plan, the loss of families from the suburban operation translates into an annual loss for Rodeph Shalom in excess of $200,000. The analysis predicts that loss, without intervention, to surpass $400,000 in 2010.
Said Klehr: "Fifty years ago, people moved from Philadelphia to Elkins Park. Now we have congregants who live on the Main Line, in King of Prussia, in Voorhees, N.J. We need to re-evaluate how we deal with congregants who are not city residents. Do we move out further north after them? Do we build an ancillary campus in Marlton, N.J.? They concluded that we need to deal with only this one structure."
Predictably, the planned move is not without its detractors. Comments made by some synagogue members at an informational meeting held at the North Broad Street site last week suggest a migration of some families to other synagogues. And a handful of disgruntled members are seeking to stop the plan's implementation through litigation.
Dr. Robert Sklaroff, a physician in Abington and the leading force behind a lawsuit awaiting its first hearing in Philadelphia's Court of Common Pleas, accused the temple's leadership of sacrificing the suburban campus in the pursuit of fiscal profit.
Sklaroff said that his own data indicate a net migration of Jewish families out of the city.
"Don't blame suburban when it's a systemic problem," he said.
Still, an optimistic Kuhn was adamant the synagogue would remain unified: "Most people do understand the realities. We have a magnificent future."