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Etz Chaim and Minyan Outgrowth Decide to Go Their Separate Ways

March 13, 2008 By:
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Members of Center City Synagogue/Mekor Habracha (from left, front) Bethany Samuels, Dalia Levine and Jordana Price, and (back) Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch and Cantor Mark Kushner.

The Etz Chaim Center for Jewish Studies and the minyan it created nine years ago are parting ways.

The Center City-based outreach organization is getting set to move to a smaller space, and dedicate more of its resources to staffing and programming. At the same time, the informal prayer group that was under its auspices has evolved into an independent Modern Orthodox congregation, albeit one that's now in search of a home.

"It's almost like this child has grown up," said Rabbi Dovid Wachs, founder of the Philadelphia-based Jewish outreach organization. "We had a child, and we nurtured it and we raised the child, and now it has become an adult. It shouldn't stay home. It should go off on its own."

The immediate cause of the split was Etz Chaim's decision, come May 1, to leave its 2,000-square-foot location at South 16th Street and relocate to a smaller, cheaper space. Wachs said that the landlord had raised the rent from $2,900 to $3,500 a month, a price he considered too steep.

The organization has tentative plans to move to another space on Walnut Street, one too small to play host to the growing minyan.

'Across the Board'

But according to leaders of what since December has been known as Center City Synagogue/ Mekor Habracha, the developments have been in the making for some time now. The impending loss of their worship space just provided the extra incentive for members to go out on their own, relayed several synagogue board members.

"We felt the community was ready for a shul -- a real shul," said Bruce Taubman, a 60-year-old physician who's serving as the congregation's first president.

In 1999, Etz Chaim started an outreach -- or learners -- minyan to help more people feel comfortable with the traditional Shabbat service. Wachs hired a rabbi to lead services.

Then, in 2001, the grant that paid for the rabbi ended, and subsequently the minyan was either led by a student rabbi or lay leader. During this time, Taubman said, it became much more a self-sufficient community, even if it remained somewhat amorphous. (For example, they only met on weeks when a minyan, a quorum of 10 men, was guaranteed in advance.)

But even when Etz Chaim was not taking an active role, the minyan always met in the organization's Center City location, free of charge.

According to Bethany Samuels, a Center City Synagogue board member, the turning point for the minyan came two years ago when Etz Chaim once again decided to hire a rabbi, namely Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch, to lead services. Samuels said that Hirsch, 36 --who teaches classes at Etz Chaim and is expected to continue to do so -- helped foster a sense of permanent community and "managed to attract people from all across the board."

According to Samuels, service attendance now routinely tops 40 people, roughly double the number that attended before Hirsch's arrival.

Wachs said that, as the minyan continued to expand, so did the costs associated with running it, including funds required for the rabbi's salary, his apartment and food for Shabbat meals. While Wachs explained that the growth of the minyan was, in and of itself, a good thing, maintaining a virtual congregation strained its resources and diverted efforts from Etz Chaim's primary goals of outreach and education.

Wachs said that in the future, Etz Chaim will hold more events in spaces other than its own.

He also hopes, for the first time, to hire full-time staff who will live in Center City and will be able to spend the majority of their time with its targeted demographic.

And while he said it had nothing to do with the split, Wachs noted that, unlike the synagogue, Etz Chaim simply considers itself Orthodox, and not Modern Orthodox.

This is a subtle distinction that has become meaningful as American Orthodoxy becomes increasingly varied -- and even fragmented.

Now the congregation, with roughly 50 members, is seeking a space to lease -- somewhere west of Broad Street -- and is actively fundraising to meet those costs.

To that end, the shul is planning a benefit concert featuring the Moshav Band at 7:30 p.m. the Painted Bride Art Center in Old City on Sunday, March 16.

"We are going to need all the help we can get," said Hirsch, who lives in Elizabeth, N.J., and for now is employed by the congregation on a part-time basis, although he hopes the position will become full-time.

He added: "We are looking to expand our programs and services to the community."

Hirsch also emphasized that while the congregation is Modern Orthodox, it welcomes Jews of all religious backgrounds.

Taubman said that the plan, for the first year, is to hold both Friday-evening and Saturday-morning services, along with additional programming.

He also hopes the one day, the congregation can have daily services and support its own Hebrew school.

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