A Brand-New Addition to Chester County

For the past 15 years or so, the Torah scroll at Beth Chaim Reform Congregation has been shuttled back and forth between the synagogue's various meeting spots — which have included a barn, a college Catholic center and several public school buildings, among other locations.

Its temporary "home" — if you can actually call it that — has most recently been the couch inside Rabbi Aileen Hollander's living room.

That bit of history explains why last Sunday, as the scroll was carried into a gleaming new building in Malvern, many congregants couldn't help but express emotion while witnessing the scene.

"It's a miracle we've come this far," said Natalie Katz, 41, one of the founding members.

"This was my dream from the beginning," added Jack Dibeler, 50, another original member. "Reform Judaism finally has a voice here!"

Indeed, the new building, located near the intersection of Routes 401 and 202, makes Beth Chaim the only Reform congregation in Chester County, a feat heralded by congregation president Madeleine Gardberg. The next closest one is Temple Brith Achim in King of Prussia.

"They said there weren't any Jews in Chester County. They said Chester County was no place for a synagogue," said Gardberg, addressing the congregation, which boasts about 160 families. "I believe we have proven that there is room for this."

State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D-19th district), another event speaker, placed the number of registered Jews in Chester County at about 25,000, but estimated that many more are unaffiliated.

He added his hope that Beth Chaim, which has a large contingent of interfaith families, could serve as a bridge to reaching those individuals.

It certainly played this role for Sarah Peck, 51, of Malvern. Peck said she joined the congregation 14 years ago because she wanted her sons to have a sense of Jewish tradition, even though her husband is Christian.

"We reach a whole market that's not being met out there," explained Peck, whose family continues to combine Jewish and Christian practices. "We have non-Jews on our boards, non-Jews as heads of our committees. We work hard at that."

Dibeler, of Exton, who converted to Judaism, agreed.

"Here, anybody who affiliates themselves with Judaism is welcome," said Dibeler, a past president of the congregation.

Still, gaining enough momentum to build a synagogue didn't exactly happen overnight.

Beth Chaim began in 1992 with just 12 member families. For much of its history, the synagogue convened at the Church of the Loving Shepherd in West Chester. That church's prayer space is a restored barn, and it's shared not just with Beth Chaim, but with the Willow Branch Sangha Buddhist center.

Congregants have also used the West Chester public-school system for Hebrew-school classes, and West Chester University's Newman Center — a campus center for Catholic ministering — to hold High Holiday services.

About nine years ago, with membership on the rise, leaders began to draw up plans to construct their own house of worship. They hired Hollander as the shul's first full-time rabbi and acquired a Torah from the Jewish congregation at Graterford prison, where members had been volunteering.

From there, it took five years to raise the $1 million need to finance the project, and to secure the other $2 million in bank loans. Peck, who chaired the building committee, said that her team examined approximately 200 sites before settling upon the current 6.8-acre plot in Malvern. She said that the wooded spot was chosen because it was affordable, centrally located and zoned according to the congregation's needs.

The completed 7,500-square-foot building — which contains a sanctuary large enough to seat about 200, a catering kitchen, library, Judaica shop, multi-purpose space and several administrative offices — is phase one of the construction. Designed by the architectural firm Brawer & Hauptman, the main sanctuary features soaring wooden ceilings and a stone front; it's intended to evoke the old barn space at the Church of the Loving Shepherd.

Phase two will provide classrooms for religious education, an enlarged catering facility and a small chapel. A start date for the project has not yet been finalized.

According to Gary Silverman, 50, from Chadds Ford, some members have expressed concerns that the new building may undermine the intimate nature the congregation's established over the years. Many, including Silverman, said they joined Beth Chaim specifically because of its small, family-like atmosphere.

Rabbi Hollander, for one, said that would not happen.

Instead, she said she will try to balance new programs — and new members — with maintaining a "very caring, supportive and nurturing environment." 



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