When the Conservative synagogue Adath Shalom in South Philadelphia closed its doors in 2007, it wasn't for lack of money. The congregation's aging population had dwindled to the point where the synagogue — which in its heyday had held services three times daily — could no longer form a minyan, had come to rely primarily on a part-time rabbi and had even stopped scheduling High Holiday services two years earlier.
Though the building has been shuttered now for more than two years, the synagogue's legacy is living on, thanks to one Bucks County shul's persistence.
Reconstructionist Congregation Tiferes B'nai Israel in Warrington held a ceremony on the evening of Nov. 7 to mark the rededication of its sanctuary, which after several months of renovation is now also steeped in the history of Adath Shalom.
TBI — the county's oldest synagogue — has incorporated elements from the now-defunct shul in its new design, including an ark and lecterns composed of wood from Adath Shalom's ark. Adjacent to that are a pair of wall sconces salvaged from TBI's former ark.
The renovations — including acquiring materials from Adath Shalom — were assisted with a stipend from the closed shul, illustrating the symbiotic relationship between the two.
TBI was founded 85 years ago as a Conservative congregation and hosts more than 110 member families.
'Maintaining the History'
The connection between the two congregations came about in part because of Rabbi Jon Cutler, TBI's former head rabbi (who now leads Darkaynu, an independent worship group also based in Warrington). Cutler had been a student rabbi at Adath Shalom in the mid-1980s, and also knew some members through his involvement with the Jewish War Veterans. Cutler is also a Naval Reserve chaplain and returned earlier this year from a tour of duty in Iraq.
In 2006, the Warrington congregation was investigating redoing its worship space at the same time that their South Philly counterpart was looking to divest itself of decades worth of ceremonial objects as they began dissolving the congregation.
Among the most meaningful additions to TBI, said rededication committee co-chair Jerry Fox, is the new wall of memorial plaques from Adath Shalom, which includes more than 300 honorific markers.
It was especially important that the plaques be included in the renovations, he said, as a way of "maintaining the history of the Jews" in the region.
In addition to TBI, a number of other congregations in the Greater Philadelphia area received Torahs and prayerbooks from the South Philly synagogue during its dissolution process.
Adath Shalom's former building at the corner of Marshall and Ritner streets is now a Buddhist temple.
Members of the TBI rededication committee would not say what the final cost was or the amount of the stipend, but the sum "was sufficient that we were able to redecorate the sanctuary" and provide new carpeting, new chairs, and also freshly paint and panel the wall that holds the memorial plaques, said Fox.
About 20 former Adath Shalom members came to the ceremony, and the whole place "overflowed with emotion," said TBI synagogue administrator Esther Levitt, adding that many of those folks "danced up a storm" at the party that followed the service.
TBI's rabbi, Jeff Sultar, noted the bittersweet nature of the whole affair: "Closing a synagogue is mostly bitter, but I feel like Saturday night really provided the sweet there."
He pointed out that bringing the two communities together exemplifies that "the values and dreams they had are continuing on" at TBI.
The evening not only served as an opportunity to show off the temple's refurbished digs, but marked the debut of a plaque noting that TBI is now a Warrington historic landmark.
For Ava Atzram, who grew up at Adath Shalom in the 1960s, the Saturday service that she attended spoke to how Judaism has lasted through thousands of years.
"It's a symbol to me of the history of Judaism," said the daughter of Adath Shalom's final president. "One generation passing on to a new generation, and the new generation being willing to accept it from the old generation."