If it were a TV show, it might be called Extreme Makeover: Synagogue Edition.
Society Hill Synagogue will soon begin repairs and renovations to its historic home, thanks to an $80,000 matching grant from the Philadelphia Regional Fund for Sacred Places, a division of Partners for Sacred Places, a nonprofit established in 1989 that provides assistance to congregations occupying historically significant structures.
The shul must raise $160,000 for the two-to-one matching grant to apply. The monies will be put to good use, said synagogue president Staci Schwartz, replacing 184-year-old windows that leak, fixing water damage inside the synagogue and putting on a new roof.
"What's nice about the grant is that it's a discrete amount of money," said Rabbi Avi Winokur. "You're not looking at raising a couple million dollars, you're looking at raising $160,000, which is a much more doable proposition. The grant is also nice in the sense that it gives us something we're very confident we can get done in a finite period of time."
According to PFSP grants and program manager Molly Lester, work on the building can begin as soon as the grant agreement is finalized, and must be completed within two years.
Participating congregations (Jewish or otherwise) must complete a yearlong training course before being eligible to apply for the grant. While a number of local synagogues have joined in the training sessions, Society Hill Synagogue is the first of these congregations to be chosen as a grant recipient.
Lester said that applicants are also judged on need and historical significance. Originally a Baptist church and later a Romanian synagogue, Society Hill Synagogue's home was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, the architect responsible for the capitol dome in Washington, D.C.
And the grant is more than just about money, said Lester; it's also about keeping congregations vital for the long haul. "A lot of times, congregations have immediate, critical repair issues, and money would be great, first and foremost. But how do you leverage that into longer-term survival techniques for your congregation and neighborhood, and things like that?"
'An Unbelievable Opportunity'
Aside from receiving the grant (for which a ceremony will be held on Feb. 7), the synagogue also has another reason to celebrate: The shul recently purchased a neighboring building to be used for expanding the facilities.
The chance to snag the building "was simply an unbelievable opportunity," said Peter Piven, co-chair of the shul's ongoing capital campaign. "The synagogue itself is landlocked; there's no place to expand physically, and other synagogues have relocated because of that."
According to Schwartz, the congregation has "been working under the strain of a one-room schoolhouse for a long time. Our social hall is basically set up and broken down three, four or five times a day for play school, Hebrew school, board meetings [and more], so we really were suffering from a lack of space."
Winokur concurred: "We have this historic building, which has limited space, particularly for schoolchildren. As a result, it also has limited space for adults… . Essentially, you have this multipurpose room and very few other spaces, so you're incredibly limited as to what you can do."
Additional space is necessary, explained Winokur, because of the ways that modern synagogue life has changed over the past several decades.
"Today, you can have a Tot Shabbat going on, with a minyan going on, with a regular service going on with yoga — and babysitting services for kids," he said. "You need more space because people now are sophisticated consumers of religious offerings, and are looking for a synagogue that will offer the kinds of things that speak to them and their particular time in life."
Schwartz said that for now, the shul would be putting off construction on the new building, and focusing on "trying to restore and maintain" its current home. When the construction does begin on the neighboring space, it will be converted into offices and classrooms; in addition, a corridor between the two buildings is planned to be built.
Until then, the new building will continue to be used as a rental property.
"We didn't acquire that building to become landlords," stated former synagogue president Mitchell Bach, but "it would be foolish to have that property vacant. We're not making any money on it — it's a break-even situation."
Added Schwartz: "We had to secure the [adjacent] property for our future by getting it off the market, but we can't go ahead and renovate it until we take care of our own home first."