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Beth Ahavah Leaves Its Old Home to Become Part of Rodeph Shalom

October 19, 2006 By:
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Members of Congregation Beth Ahavah take their Torah from their old home on Letitia Street to their new one, about 20 blocks away, at Congregation Rodeph Shalom on North Broad Street. Photos by Carin M. Smilk

After 15 years of renting a building in Old City, Congregation Beth Ahavah will no longer have a space of its own, but instead will be housed at Congregation Rodeph Shalom's historic home on North Broad Street. Members insist that the upcoming move does not mean the end of a distinct community that serves gay and lesbian Jews.

"This was such an attractive option that it far outshone the others," said Jocelyn Block, president of Beth Ahavah.

About a year ago, members began wrestling with the viability of maintaining its building in the trendy neighborhood.

The 31-year-old congregation that has provided a spiritual home to those who often felt excluded from the wider Jewish community -- and where some members also happened to meet their life partners -- had been steadily losing members. The mid-1990s high of 150 had fallen recently to roughly 75 members.

The decline was partly due to a growing acceptance of gays in the wider community, with many mainstream synagogues now encouraging their membership. In addition, Beth Ahavah could never support its own Hebrew school, so gay couples raising children had to find another educational outlet; also, couples often moved from downtown to the suburbs once they had children.

Then in February, in the midst of a kind of existential debate, congregants received word that their building, which had served them for 15 years -- located on Letitia Street on a block in the midst of heavy construction -- had been sold.

The synagogue leadership soon learned that the new owner planned to charge far more rent than the congregation could afford.

Simply put, hanging on to the building was not an option. The question became what to do next.

"We had to make a decision quickly," said Block.

She explained that the congregation had initially looked to find another site to rent in Center City, but Philadelphia's real estate market -- driven in large part by a condominium building boom -- proved too pricey for the small synagogue.

Not a Merger, Exactly

This past spring, the members voted unanimously to accept an offer put on the table by Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a 1,000-family Reform Congregation, to move Beth Ahavah to historic synagogue. Many of the details have yet to be worked out, and it's unclear if Beth Ahavah will continue to exist as a separate congregation in the long run.

"A lot of people are using the 'm' word. It's not a merger exactly. I shudder when anybody uses that word in my presence," continued Block. "We are the GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender] synagogue. We have carved out an identity for ourselves over the last 31 years, and I'm very reluctant to give that up."

Beth Ahavah members will hold their own services several times a month, but they also plan to take part in religious worship with the broader Rodeph Shalom community.

"It's not going to be divided; it's going to be a meshed community," said Susan Klehr, president of Rodeph Shalom. "They are going to be treated as members of our community. They bring with them a tremendous vitality."

On the morning of Oct. 15, Beth Ahavah members gathered at the Leititia Street building, many to say goodbye to the place that had housed the congregation since 1991. They noshed on bagels and doughnuts before reciting several prayers and removing the congregation's Torah, which it has owned since 1993, and preparing to walk with it the 20 or so city blocks to Rodeph Shalom.

"This is a day of mixed emotions," said Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, regional director of the Pennsylvania Council for the Union for Reform Judaism. "This is a time of soul-searching. We ask, 'How do we make this transition with an acknowledgement of all the uncertainty?' "

On the whole, most seemed enthusiastic -- albeit a little anxious -- about the impending move.

"I'm very excited that we are going to be part of the larger Jewish community," said Rie Brosco, a past president of the congregation.

Jerry Silverman, 56 and one of Beth Ahavah's founding members, said that this was just another move for a congregation that began in his apartment, had subsequently been housed in a storefront, and then became situated at first the Society for Ethical Culture building on Rittenhouse Square and later at the Gershman Y.

He said that for the first time, members would have access to a full professional staff, rabbinical leadership and first-rate facilities.

"I think this is is a step in the right direction. It made total sense. The gay community no longer needs to be separate," said David Wohlsifer, who, at 36, is considered the congregation's youngest member. "To be honest, I'm looking forward to meeting people my own age."

On the way to their new home, congregants marched on a breezy fall day, taking turns carrying the Torah and singing familiar Hebrew songs.

As the group arrived at Rodeph Shalom, several classes of Hebrew-school students filled the sanctuary with voices, singing "Hine Ma Tov Umanayim," or "how good it is."

Beth Ahavah members brought the Torah onto the bimah, and the Shehecheyanu was recited before the Torah was placed in the ark.

Block remarked that it was "a wonderful symbolic welcome into their congregation."

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