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Bucks Synagogue Marches to New Home

January 9, 2013 By:
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Rabbi Mitchell Delcau leads a Torah march into Temple Judea’s new synagogue in Doylestown. Photo by Daniel T. Gramkee

Dina Katz, her husband, Andrew, and their daughter, Zoe, won’t have to spend the High Holidays this year in church — a first for the family.

The two marketing professionals belong to Temple Judea in Bucks County, where the sanctuary was too small to hold services on the holidays, which meant that for the past eight years, the whole congregation relocated to a nearby Lutheran church.

Those worries over space were left behind Sunday when the Reform congregation moved into a roomier synagogue on Rogers Street in Doylestown. As part of a Torah march, several hundred people walked more than two miles with a police escort. The procession snaked through residential neighborhoods and commercial streets, stopping intermittently as people passed the five Torahs to other congregants in the group. It is a Jewish tradition for congregations to carry their Torahs with them by foot when relocating.

Before the march, many congregants took a school bus from a parking lot beside the new building to East Swamp Road, where the old building is located. The crowd filed into the small sanctuary  and watched as the synagogue’s president climbed a ladder to symbolically extinguish the sanctuary’s eternal flame.

The move was long-awaited for the nearly 300-family congregation, which purchased land more than 10 years ago. The congregation has no large endowment, members said, so fundraising for the $6 million project happened slowly.

But the synagogue’s membership has increased in an area where neighboring congregations have closed or merged in recent years. In general, the Jewish population in Bucks County has increased in the past 15 years. According to a 2009 population study by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, more than 41,000 Jews in some 19,000 households live in the area.

Some Bucks County institutions have fared better than others. For example, Temple Shalom existed in Levittown for more than 50 years before dwindling membership forced the congregation to sell its building in 2011 and merge with the larger Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation.

Temple Judea president Jerel Wohl said his congregation draws most  members from Doylestown and Buckingham.

Following the removal of the mezu­zah from the entrance to the old synagogue, the congregation started to walk on an unseasonably warm January afternoon. Police officers rode alongside the procession, instructing children to stay out of the road while parents on the other side told them not to tread on people’s lawns. The crowd appeared to be largely made up of young families with elementary and middle school-aged children.

Rabbi Mitchell Delcau spent most of his time near the front of the pack, occasionally asking people to pass messages to the rear like a game of telephone. He paused every few hundred feet to lead a song, wrap his arm around a Torah bearer or offer instruction on the proper way to carry it: Hold the scroll on the right side, resting it on the right shoulder.

Delcau said he feels a strong connection to the idea that God provides days like Sunday, when sunglasses were more helpful than gloves. He called it one of the most meaningful times he’s had as a rabbi.

“It really felt like making the exodus to the promised land, and that’s what Jews have done for thousands of years, is walk our teachings to the next place,” said Delcau, who joined Temple Judea over the summer after spending several years as an assistant rabbi in Colorado.

Since his arrival, Temple Judea has added 30 families, Wohl said. The majority of the families were not affiliated before. Wohl attributes the congregation’s growth to its philosophy that “anyone that wants to practice Judaism in our congregation is welcome.” The congregation includes interfaith and non-traditional couples.

As the crowd arrived at the new synagogue, the procession stopped outside the entrance to let the five people carrying Torahs walk inside first. The sanctuary filled up and the bearers moved toward the ark. Delcau then asked the crowd to raise their hands in the air and “throw” the flames they had carried with them from the old building onto a new light.

The new sanctuary has large windows that allow natural light to pour over an ark made from Jerusalem stone. Wohl, the president, said it was important to the congregation to build a synagogue that melded with its surroundings.

“We wanted to keep the Bucks County warm, ‘naturey’ feeling,” Wohl said.

The 20,000-square-foot building also provides the congregation with additional space for education, parking and events.

The religious and nursery schools have each seen their enrollment slip in recent years until the schools rebounded slightly this year; leaders attributed the increase to Delcau’s arrival and the promise of a new building.

At one time, the nursery had about 90 students but last year enrollment was just over 30, according to school director, Sheryl Milstein. She attributed the decrease in part to the size of the old facilities.

The new site has much larger classrooms and a youth lounge, Delcau said.

“We have more room to grow now.”

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