Back in May of 1994, Kehilat HaNahar, The Little Shul by the River, held its first services with about 12 people in attendance and no permanent meeting place. In the last 13 years, however, the Reconstructionist synagogue has blossomed into a 150-family organization with a thriving Hebrew school. To celebrate, congregants held a weekend celebration with a Kabbalat Shabbat service on May 11, and a "Bar Mitzvah" service on May 12.
At the time of the synagogue's inception, Rabbi Sandy Roth, now 54, was still a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, but she worked diligently with New Hope residents to garner interest in starting the shul.
"We came up with a list of names of possible interested parties and, cold-called people and basically said, 'Would you be interested in possibly forming a synagogue?' " said Roth, who graduated from the RRC in 1999.
The founding group first met mainly in members' homes, but by September of 1994, they were able to draw a crowd of 175 people for High Holiday services at nearby Solebury Meeting House, said Roth. This spot became Kehilat's unofficial home for the next three years.
'A New Life'
In 1997, Kehilat HaNahar opened the doors to its current building, a large structure that had spent years as a schoolhouse, restaurant, gallery, apartments — even a warehouse. During the rehabilitation process, organizers focused on simple colors and decor.
"We're not looking for glitz, or something ostentatious," explained Roth. "We just want it to be useful and simple."
In keeping with this easygoing demeanor, those in the community call their religious leader "Rabbi Sandy," a title she enjoys.
Arthur Spector joined the synagogue in 1995, just trying to gain some Jewish knowledge. Ever since, he has become one of its most active members.
"I had reached a point in my life where I really wanted, finally, to learn more about Judaism — culturally and historically and ritually," said the 67-year-old. "I didn't know I was getting a new life."
Spector is so involved that he's now the incoming co-president, beginning his term on July 1.
Though the early years of the shul began with quite a number of empty-nesters and seniors, nowadays, explained Roth, many members are in their 30s and 40s — young families with small children. In her view, the change is due to recent suburban sprawl that's shifted demographics in the region.
With the addition of more children, Kehilat HaNahar's "Shul School" has grown from 14 children in 1994 to more than 100 enrolled this year. Students range from kindergarten through 10th grade, and just last week the synagogue held its first confirmation ceremony.
"We have outgrown our classroom space. When we have 'Shul School,' we use every inch of space in the building," said Roth, who noted that the synagogue is in the first of a three-year, $1 million capital campaign, which will be earmarked for creating an addition to the current building.
Of course, with New Hope being known for its prominent gay community, Roth said the congregation prides itself on being particularly inclusive. She also stressed that it is a welcoming place for intermarried families.
"One-third of our membership are couples or households that are intermarried," she said. "We welcome the non-Jewish partner to be a member."