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Cherry Hill Shul Gets Ready to Relocate

September 29, 2005 By:
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Congregation Beth El wants to sell.
It's a story many synagogues know all too well: Changing demographics and a migrating Jewish community cause rabbis, administrators, board members and everyone else concerned with the longevity of a religious institution to rethink its location, location, location.

Congregation Beth El in Cherry Hill, N.J., began this dialogue a decade ago. Located on the West side of the city - a section that over the past several years has lost synagogues to other areas, and has experienced a noticeable change in demographics - the shul faced an aging population, lower Hebrew-school enrollment and a decline in overall membership.

To alleviate some of these issues, it opened a new building across town in Voorhees, N.J., to house its Hebrew school, pre-school and offices.

Now, six years later, its existing building on Cherry Hill's West Chapel Avenue - the 85-year-old shul's second home since moving from its original location in Camden in 1968 - is for sale. An architect has already been hired to begin plans for a new building in Voorhees.

According to congregational president Eric Boory, about 12 years ago members filled out a questionnaire concerning their requests for the future of their house of worship, and the results pointed to three main issues: Members wanted a leader to relate to newer, younger congregants; women wanted to be more involved in services; and the shul needed to have a presence on the other side of town, where a majority of the membership lived and where unaffiliated families were moving.

To address these issues, the synagogue hired a younger assistant rabbi - now its senior rabbi - changed from traditional Conservative to fully egalitarian to allow women to be a part of the minyan, and purchased 11 acres of land in Voorhees in the hopes that the entire congregation would one day be joined on a single campus.

Details about when the move will occur are sketchy, though Rabbi Aaron Krupnick estimates it will be 18 to 24 months after construction eventually begins.

After Beth El goes, only one shul will be left in the West - Orthodox synagogue Congregation Sons of Israel.

Like any major decision, the proposed change doesn't please everyone.

"We are trying our hardest to not leave anyone behind," explained Boory. "The amount of people that walk to synagogue as a percentage of overall membership is not very large, but we will do whatever necessary to make sure they have a place to go on Shabbat."

Boory said those members - while they won't drive themselves - are at least willing to be driven, so the shul is thinking of renting or buying a bus to accommodate them.

All of this also raises questions for the neighbors of the old building in West Cherry Hill.

Back in April, the shul announced that a New Jersey developer had plans to purchase the land and erect senior housing on it. This would necessitate zoning changes, as the land is not zoned for residential use. Neighbors apparently flocked to township council meetings to put a stop to the proposal.

But just last month, the shul announced that they would rebuff the developer to pursue an institutional buyer.

Despite the obstacles Beth El faces by attempting to relocate, Boory said that the other side of town will not only attract young families, but also fill the needs of the 55-and-older set.

"This is not a move because we want to," he said. "It's a move we need to do to make ourselves as accessible as possible to our congregation and to potential members."

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