"I joined when it was a tent, and I've been active since," said Edythe Kaplan of her membership at Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Melrose Park. The 83-year-old former co-president of the congregation has a simple reason for her long-held devotion to her shul: "It's family."
The congregation began its 50th anniversary celebration on Dec. 3 with a concert by Jewish singer Craig Taubman, and continued with a special Chanukah service on Dec. 16. During the service, Rabbi Howard Addison asked the congregation to quietly contemplate the lights of the chanukiahs and think of the congregation's next 50 years. The service was followed by a special dessert reception, where congregants enjoyed klezmer music and dancing to mark the holiday and the synagogue's milestone.
"The little shul with the big heart," as it's fondly called, began humbly, with the merger of B'nai Israel of Olney and Melrose Congregation of Cheltenham in 1957. "At the beginning, everybody was young, married, and of modest means," said past president Joe Pressman.
That year, there was no synagogue building, so services were held in a tent, he recalled. The congregation's original members went door to door, collecting $2 each week from the congregants, in order to add to the building fund.
The synagogue was built in 1959 — and it grew — reaching its zenith in the mid-1970s, according to Pressman, with more than 350 children in the Hebrew school, and 300 members of the congregation.
But almost just as quickly, families began to move out of the area, and membership began to decline.
Then, in 1985, the Hebrew school closed due to low enrollment, and Temple Emanu-El, which was set to close due to lack of congregants, merged with Melrose B'nai Israel.
Things began to turn around in 2005, according to Pressman, with the addition of Addison to the congregation.
Membership went up 15 percent in 2005, and another 10 percent in 2006.
"We're thriving now," he said.
Indeed, part of the congregation's success lies in the devotion of its members. The morning minyan has been a fixture at the shul since its founding 50 years ago. Leonard Cohen, who runs the minyan, came to the congregation in 1963 because it was in walking distance from his house, and has been a member ever since.
Current co-presidents Raphael Becker and Stanley Brooks have noted that the lunch-and-learn Shabbat program draws 35 people each week, and more people continue to join.
"It increases by two or three every Shabbas," said Brooks.
And Gunther Kirchheimer, a founding member of the congregation, said that even though members have moved out of the neighborhood, they still return for services. And he continues to look to the shul's future.
"We hope to be here another 50 years," he said.
Their Welcoming Nature
The members of the congregation pride themselves on their welcoming nature, and Wendy Light experienced that outreach firsthand. Light has been a member for the past 10 years, and it was the warmth of the people at Melrose B'nai that won her family over.
"It started out as our bad-weather shul," she said, because it was only a half-mile from her home. "The more we came here, the more we enjoyed the people and their zest for life."
She was surprised when she got phone calls from fellow congregants when her family missed services; she wasn't used to such an intimate community. But she and her family soon chose to become members.
"This is where we choose to be," she stated. "There's an old-time respect."
For Warren Nachmann, the spirit of Melrose B'nai comes from its members. The 62-year-old attends morning minyan every day, and is the chair of the religion committee.
When he first moved into the neighborhood 30 years ago, he saw the incredible drive on the congregation's members.
"The shul is a worker's shul," he said.
Members praised their new rabbi's work with the congregation, as well as the energy he has brought to his work. After only a year-and-a-half, they can't say enough about him.
"He's been a real boon to us," said Cohen.
"He's breathing life back into the shul," added Nachmann.
"He's really changed things for the positive," said Light. Fifty-three new families joined in the rabbi's first 15 months on the job, she said, including a number of younger ones.
Addison is excited about the future of the congregation. Ten Bar Mitzvahs are slated for next year, and while he acknowledged that some large synagogues have that many sinchas over several weekends, the new influx of youth is of great importance.
The congregation is much more than its bricks and mortar, attested Nachmann; it's the intangible qualities of the people. "And that's," he re-emphasized, "the vitality of the shul."