Marking 80 Years, Beth Am Israel Takes a Stroll Down Memory Lane

As part of the 80th-anniversary celebration of Congregation Beth Am Israel in Penn Valley, several original members decided to put on an impromptu performance and belt out a few tunes. Despite the passage of many years, the former students of Beth Am's Hebrew school — then located in southwest Philadelphia — still recalled the songs they learned, set to Broadway tunes by their principal, Ed Kornblatt.

Far from the lush suburbs of Penn Valley, the synagogue's first home was nearly 20 blocks west of the University of Pennsylvania, at 58th and Warrington, said Judy Frank Wohlberg.

"We were a shtetl," she said, "though none of us would have referred to it that way."

The eight-by-10 block area of row houses — with 44 houses to each block — had "a very strong Jewish concentration," she continued. Shops were at every corner, from Jewish-owned pharmacies to kosher butchers, and everyone knew everyone else.

And the one synagogue in the area — Beth Am Israel — "was the focal point of our lives," she said, even for those who weren't particularly religious.

Now, 80 years later, the congregation celebrated its anniversary on June 10 with a look back at synagogue history — from its dedication in Philadelphia on June 19, 1927, all the way to the move to Penn Valley in the 1970s. In addition to the walk down memory lane, congregants and children from Beth Am entertained the audience with a variety of musical performances — one of which featured their current rabbi, Michael Bernstein, singing and dancing with a few of the young performers.

For Beth Am's first (and longtime) rabbi, Morris S. Goodblatt, education was of utmost importance, stated Wohlberg: "He set the tone for the synagogue."

The educational effort was spearheaded by Kornblatt, who served as a fixture in the Hebrew school, both as a teacher and principal until 1974. He declared that those 28 years "were the happiest, most thrilling, most creative years of my life."

"The education made an indelible impression on many of us," acknowledged Sharon Stern Schanzer, another member from the former Philadelphia location. Still, it wasn't just education that kept the community together; "our social lives revolved around Beth Am," she said.

Nearly 250 children went to junior congregation services, and attendance there was linked to the neighborhood events, noted Schanzer. If kids didn't show up at services often enough, then they couldn't gain admission to dances and other gatherings.

Many of the members from Philadelphia came to the anniversary event, including Janet L. Stern of Merion, now a member of Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood. The 75-year-old fondly remembered the tightly-knit community of the junior congregation, as well as the model seders during Hebrew school.

'Meaning in Their Lives'

The congregation relocated from Philadelphia to Penn Valley in the early 1970s, said Sandy Choukroun, chair of the congregation's history committee, because of "inexorable demographic pressures." Families were leaving southwest Philadelphia and moving to the suburbs.

Dedicated in 1974, the first building was meant to be a temporary home. Yet some members didn't prefer this Penn Valley site, and so the congregation lost a good portion of its fiscal stability as people moved to Elkins Park and other Jewish enclaves.

"These were dark times," admitted Byron Prusky, then the synagogue's financial chair.

The building was constructed to hold between 200 and 250 members, he said, but at the time, Beth Am only had 140. The synagogue had trouble meeting mortgage payments and electric bills.

But after some sound financial decisions, a group of members bought out the mortgage. The situation improved, and the temporary home was torn down to make way for a new, larger building on the very same spot, dedicated in February 2004.

Today, the synagogue has 360 families, said congregation president-elect John Harris.

"We're not just a place for inspiring services," he said, "but a place where people find meaning in their lives."

And the emphasis on education remains: "We engage parents actively in their children's learning — and their own learning." Adult-education classes address spirituality and traditional Torah study, along with programs on contemporary issues.

Bernstein, who is nearing the end of his third year as rabbi at the congregation, affirmed that the anniversary "reminds us that we're part of a chain of tradition."

The congregation is a place that "has looked to make deeper connections," he said, and a day to mark the momentous occasion gave members a glimpse of their roots in the history of Philadelphia's Jewish community.

The program ended with the dedication of a magnolia tree, which, announced Bernstein, would mark a new branch on the extensive tree of life for the next generation of Beth Am congregants.



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