Historic Congregation Embraces New Model of Shul Life

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Guests at B’nai Abraham Chabad’s annual gala enjoy a cocktail hour. | Photo by Rachel Winicov

When Jews fleeing czarist Russia arrived in Philadelphia in 1874, they founded Chevra B’nai Avrohom mi Russe, probably with little thought to the synagogue’s adaptability to 21st-century life.

In 2017, however, the temple’s lay leaders resolved to modernize how the historic synagogue approaches the surrounding community. They voted in January to formally affiliate with the Chabad-Lubavitch movement and rebrand Historic Congregation B’nai Abraham as B’nai Abraham Chabad.

The rebirth was celebrated June 20 at the synagogue’s annual gala event, “A Celebration of Generations.”

Partygoers espoused the new label, though Rabbi Yochonon Goldman admitted it means little for the average congregant.

“It’s more an internal change that’s not felt as much by the congregation,” he said.

For Goldman, the change culminates his years-long efforts to return the synagogue to core Orthodox observances. Early into his tenure at B’nai Abraham, Goldman reinstated separate male and female seating during services.

His wife, Leah Goldman, spearheaded the creation of the Center City Jewish Preschool on the synagogue campus, although it remains a separate entity. Now boasting more than 75 students, the preschool is the primary way in which the synagogue gains members. Those young families, however, do not always consider themselves Orthodox.

“Most do not come on a regular basis, but they come for holidays and to celebrations,” Rabbi Goldman explained.

He said the recent shift toward a full Chabad model encourages participation in synagogue life outside of services.  

He added, “There’s an evolving tradition of people who pay dues and those who have other ways of engagement. Our objective is not to be limited to just members.”

Despite the trend, those who do register as members often cite the Goldmans as their inspiration.

Linda Goldner joined the synagogue 18 years ago, with the hiring of Rabbi Goldman. A master’s degree holder from Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, she studied over lunch-and-learn sessions with the rabbi and joined the synagogue because of his intelligence and charisma.

“It’s a unique synagogue,” she said with a laugh. “The community is starting to get younger.” Pointing at the gala’s cocktail hour, she noted, “All the generations are in the same room. And people of all different Jewish practices, too.”

Tova and Brad Du Plessis, originally from South Africa, moved to Philadelphia four years ago. Goldman, himself from South Africa, attracted the couple, and the preschool cemented their decision to join the synagogue.

Essen Bakery owner Tova Du Plessis said she hopes her young daughter will one day attend the preschool. “We love the nonjudgmental attitude of the synagogue,” she added, noting that both those who attend minyan regularly and those who may only daven a few times a year are welcome at B’nai Abraham.

The older crowd at B’nai Abraham also praises the rabbi’s changes.

“I used to be down here every weekend,” Jeff Shender said, explaining how a move to Elkins Park demanded a change in synagogues. “It was mostly older guys back then. It’s remarkable to see the energy now. There’s more diversity.”

Synagogue President David Mink spoke briefly at the event and marveled at the changes.

“Eighteen years ago there was no preschool,” he said. “The shul struggled to form minyans and even on Shabbos. Chabad is lowering the barriers to access. It’s the fastest-growing Jewish movement today.”

Goldman followed Mink at the bimah and highlighted a key challenge.

“There is a transient nature of urban congregations,” he said. “People move away to the suburbs, to other cities, and tonight, we are sadly saying goodbye to some families.”

The gala honored four families, two of whom are leaving the city, for their contributions to the preschool and synagogue. It also featured a musical performance by Choni G, a South African pop star who croons ballads ranging from Israeli folk songs to reflections on the Holocaust.

Concluding the event, the synagogue unveiled a newly renovated third-floor multipurpose room, donated by member Jonathan Adams.

By the buffet, two younger members discussed the shul.

“I love it,” Moussia Goldman, the Goldmans’ 15-year-old daughter, said of the congregation. “It’s not boring at all. The synagogue is young; it’s happening.”

Her brother, Levi Goldman, 11, concurred: “My father makes it more fun,” he said.

Asked what he thought of the assemblage of people at the gala, he replied simply: “It’s beautiful.”

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