B’nai Abraham



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    B'nai Abraham was founded in 1874 by Russian Jews fleeing from Czar Alexander II. The synagogue met in temporary quarters until they moved into their current building in 1910. The building was designed by Charles Lewis Bolton, a Philadelphia architect, and was dedicated in 1926. It is historically significant as the oldest building in Philadelphia that was built as a synagogue and has been in continuous use as such.

    In 1891 B'nai Abraham, along with three other synagogues in the area, brought Rabbi Bernard L. Levinthal from Lithuania to the United States to serve as the third rabbi of the congregation. When in attendance at the synagogue, Rabbi Levinthal gave his sermon in Yiddish. In the early part of the century, Rabbi Levinthal, one of the founders of the Orthodox Union, arranged for the second annual Orthodox Union conference to be held at B'nai Abraham.

    Rabbi Levinthal held his position at B'nai Abraham until his death in 1952. From 1952 until 2000, when Rabbi Yochonon Goldman assumed the position, there was no official rabbi at the synagogue. In the early 1980's Rabbi Musleah and, later in the 1990's, Rabbi Shraga Sherman assumed the role of rabbi of the synagogue in an unofficial capacity.

    After World War II many of the Jewish families left the neighborhoods surrounding B'nai Abraham to move to outlying areas like Wynnefield, Logan, Mt. Airy, Oak Lane or the Northeast. Hence, from that time to the later half of the 20th century, the synagogue declined in membership and participation. 

    As the practice of Conservative Judaism expanded nationally, the synagogue board decided to allow mixed seating for High Holiday services in the 1950's in a futile effort to increase High Holiday attendance. During these years men and women reportedly sat together mostly in the back of the sanctuary. 

    In the 1980's Rabbi Menachem Schmidt developed a relationship with Leon Wapner and the other leaders of the synagogue. When they needed someone to read the Torah on a regular basis, he suggested Rabbi Shraga Sherman. For several years Rabbi Sherman had an office in the synagogue and led services there, although he and Rabbi Schmidt were more involved with the minyan at the Gershman Y. 

    In January of 2000, Rabbi Goldman became the rabbi of B'nai Abraham. When he became the rabbi, the synagogue still had mixed seating during the High Holidays, compelling the rabbi to attend services elsewhere. As attendance continued to decline, Rabbi Goldman suggested there would be little to lose by an experimental return to the original practice of separate seating on the High Holidays (since gender separation had generally been observed for the daily minyanim). The synagogue then re-instituted its former long-standing traditional High Holiday practices, and, since then, High Holiday attendance has slowly, but steadily, increased; this year, over 200 people participated.

    In addition, for the past eight years, the synagogue has been the site of a preschool program which started with only 7 students and now has over 25 students. During the year, Shabbat dinners with speakers are held and are well attended as are the Singles Dinners, which occur occasionally. The adult education classes in Talmud, Hebrew, Jewish mysticism and the weekly Torah portion reach over 50 people each week and are part of an initiative called the Zaslow Institute of Jewish Learning. Weekly attendance for the Shabbat morning service is growing too. 

    Thus, as B'nai Abraham moves into its second century of operation in its current location, it is experiencing a rebirth, once again offering Shabbat and holiday programming, classes for adults and children, and attracting neighborhood people to participate in its daily and Shabbat minyanim.