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November 22, 2007
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The sanctuary at Congregation B'nai Abraham suffered severe flooding damage earlier this year. Today, it's as good as new.

For seven long months, the synagogue building was essentially off-limits: Chaos and disrepair had ensued as the result of severe water damage due to internal flooding. And for the members and staff of Congregation B'nai Abraham, it seemed like an exile of sorts.

So does that mean that the return to the historic 97-year-old building on Lombard Street in Society Hill makes this Turkey Day a little more stuffed with nachas?

"I don't think the secular holiday can raise us to a greater level -- or another plateau of happiness. Happy is happy," retorted Steve Dickstein, president of the congregation, which will turn 125 in 2008.

"If anything, the miracle of Chanukah is much more relevant to what we feel. Just as the flame miraculously burned for eight days, our lights have miraculously remained lit," he said.

The synagogue's epic journey started on Feb. 10, when a pipe in a third-floor restroom froze and then burst, sending a deluge onto the floors below.

According to Dickstein, the building sustained hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of damage. Floors, walls and ceilings were literally soaked, and the kitchen was completely destroyed.

But for seven months, the congregation persevered.

Congregants attended services at the Vilna Congregation, situated one block north on Pine Street. The shul's preschool rented space nearby.

For the first few months, Rabbi Yochonon Goldman worked out of a makeshift office as crews cleared debris and used industrial-strength vacuums to remove water. But after protracted negotiations with the insurer yielded a settlement and reconstruction began in earnest, even the rabbi had to abandon ship. Luckily, he and other staff members were able to use an office in Center City.

"It was very difficult, very trying, very dislocating. But we knew that with Hashem's help and guidance, we would see it to the end, and we would be back in our home," said Dickstein.

Leah Goldman, the rebbetzin who runs the preschool, said that "the kids adjusted faster than the adults to the situation."

She added that she tried to turn it into an educational experience for the children, teaching them about the history of the building and visiting, from time to time, when conditions were safe, to see the progress of the construction.

Rabbi Goldman said that High Holiday services were held at B'nai Abraham, even though the reconstruction was far from complete. Normal activity returned in the weeks after Yom Kippur, but the work is yet to be finished.

A reopening ceremony is planned for some time early next year.

Goldman explained that the congregation decided to use the setback as an opportunity to make some needed improvements to the building. For starters, they're adding a lobby by removing a number of pews near the shul's entrance. A new floor has been put in, and a glass wall will be erected to separate the lobby from the sanctuary.

Workers have also moved the memorial plaques from the basement into the sanctuary, with its striking original paintings and stained-glass installations. Now, by using a computer to program a series of wall lights, each plaque will be illuminated on the date of an individual yahrzeit.

Even after all the repairs are done, more work will be needed on the building, acknowledged Goldman, pointing out areas of the sanctuary's walls and ceiling that look as if they've seen better days.

"God willing, we will be able to restore it to its former glory," he said.

"There's good that comes out of everything," he added. "The challenge is to see the good -- not in hindsight, but when you are faced with the challenges."

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