Synagogue’s New Space Resembles a Village Gathering Place

Conditions had become crowded at Congregation Beth Or's Spring House facility, a manor house the congregation has called home since 1974.

With more than 1,000 member families and 700 children enrolled in its religious school, Sunday-morning Hebrew school became a logistical nightmare, even without factoring in the probability of a Men's Club or Sisterhood event at the same time.

Now, seven years after members decided that the synagogue needed a bigger space, the congregation that began in a Mount Airy basement back in 1954 has moved into a brand-new, $19 million building with 65,000 square feet – double the old facility – and 27 classrooms. The new campus is located in shady Maple Glen.

"We tried to create something that looked like a village," said Rabbi Gregory S. Marx, explaining that the fireplace in the building's lobby is meant to remind members of the previous location's homey feeling. "It says that you are entering a community – a place where all aspects of Jewish life can be celebrated."

The building sits on a 16-acre plot of land, complete with a small lake, in Upper Dublin Township.

Construction, which lasted roughly 17 months, took place less than three miles from the congregation's former location in Lower Gwynedd Township.

Marx explained that a factor constantly on the minds of planners was that one of a synagogue's goals was to be a gathering place, where congregants not only come to worship, but to socialize.

To that end, among the features at the new synagogue is a 1,000-square-foot cafe and sandwich bar adjacent to the library. Another addition is a teen room featuring air hockey and foosball tables, along with a big-screen television hooked up to a Sony Play Station video-game system.

Marx said the cavernous new building will offer a boost to adult-education programming, and may one day allow it to create something akin to a senior center.

On March 19, roughly 2,000 people participated in Beth Or's Torah march, with members carrying the synagogue's nine scrolls from the old building to the new.

"They were not fleeing, as so many of their ancestors had done; rather, they were marching freely and proudly," attested Steven Stone, Beth Or's president.

And this week, more than 600 people packed into the new Gittlin Sanctuary – as ominous clouds could be seen through the large, clear windows – for the synagogue's official dedication service, which included a shofar-blowing, a video tribute to the religious institution and a speech by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell.

"This sanctuary is such a warm, welcoming place," said Rendell. "Congregations – they add a sense of belonging in this world … . I'm proud of you as a Pennsylvanian, as a governor, and as a Jew."

In his keynote address, Harold Goldman, outgoing president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, said that synagogues are the most important institutions in terms of promoting Jewish identity and community, particularly as Jews move farther and farther apart.

Two days after the dedication, Beth Or was also planning to host another large event called "Celebrate Synaplex Philadelphia." Synaplex is an initiative of the Minneapolis-based STAR (Synagogues: Transformation and Renewal) organization; nine area synagogues currently participate in the national program, which aims to reinvigorate synagogue attendance by making Shabbat more engaging.

At the dedication's conclusion, Marx told congregants that he didn't want the synagogue just to be known for its building, but for the deeds of its members.

Said the rabbi: "May all of us here find in Beth Or a house of light – a home."



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