From ‘Wandering Jews’ to a Stationary Congregation

Over the years, Rabbi Elliot Holin of Kol Ami has promised his two older sons – Jonathan, 16, and David, 15 – that they would become B'nai Mitzvah in a building that was owned by the congregation.

That, however, never did pan out; instead, the boys had Bar Mitzvahs at Gratz College.

For almost a decade now, Kol Ami has looked for a permanent house of worship without success – a span of time that's seen several plans come and go, coupled with a protracted legal dispute with Abington Township.

Now, it looks as if Kol Ami's saga is finally drawing to a close, and that Holin's youngest son – 12-year-old Josh – will indeed read from the Torah in a building owned by the congregation his father helped found in 1994.

"I can finally make good on that promise," said Holin.

In actuality, it had appeared as if the saga of the wandering synagogue was all settled a year ago, when Kol Ami received approval from Cheltenham Township to set up shop at the current site of the Wordsworth Academy in Elkins Park.

Yet in what has become almost routine for the group, a further change in plans has given Kol Ami a new future address.

Rather than convert a building once used as a private school into a synagogue, it has instead decided to purchase the existing building being vacated by another Reform synagogue, Congregation Rodeph Shalom. The Center City-based congregation announced back in January that it was abandoning its satellite suburban campus in an effort to consolidate both resources and membership.

Earlier this month, Kol Ami made a deal with Rodeph Shalom to purchase the seven-acre Elkins Park campus, about a mile from the Wordsworth Academy site.

Reported Kol Ami president Jonathan Auerbach: "We've got everything we need. We don't have to create a new sanctuary because one already exists."

He optimistically pinned the move-in date as some time before Rosh Hashanah.

Auerbach said the congregation has not decided whether it will sell, lease or hold on to the Wordsworth Academy site, which it is in the middle of buying, following an agreement of sale last year.

The congregation president would not reveal the purchasing prices of either the Wordsworth Academy or the Rodeph Shalom property, but Rodeph Shalom's five-year strategic plan, released in December, estimated the value of the Elkins Park property as in excess of $1.5 million.

Kol Ami never thought the search for a building would take so long. Back in 1999, the synagogue, which currently meets at Gratz College for services, purchased the site of a one-time convent in Meadowbrook.

Two years later, after its plans to convert the area into a synagogue were rejected by the township zoning board following community opposition, Kol Ami filed a federal lawsuit against Abington Township, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prevents a municipality from placing undue burdens on the exercise of religion.

In 2003, it sold the Meadowbrook property for the sum of $2 million, according to Auerbach.

Last month, the five-year legal battle was settled, with the township paying Kol Ami $170,000.

Said Auerbach: "We've been a synagogue without walls for over a decade, and we have survived. Now, we will have the full gamut of activities and programming that one would expect in a Jewish congregation."

As for the preschool housed at the Rodeph Shalom space in Elkins Park, it will not – as previously reported – move over to Wordsworth Academy. Instead, it will remain right where it is.

Holin noted that "it's been a long journey. Not quite 40 years, but, at times, it felt like it."



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