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In a Period of Flux, Shul Decides It Needs Change

July 9, 2009 By:
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Rabbi Lisa Malik

At 26,800 square feet, the building that houses Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron in Havertown is plenty big. Too big, in fact. With rising gas prices and a membership base that has shrunk considerably, it's simply too pricey to maintain, say synagogue leaders.

Now, the congregation that's situated in Delaware County -- not far from the Montgomery County line -- is seriously considering downsizing.

That's just one of several steps the Conservative congregation is taking in response to difficult financial times and changing circumstances, including the decline in Havertown's Jewish population.

"We're trying to take lemons and make lemonade," said Rabbi Lisa Malik, who has served the synagogue for the past five years, a time of transformation and reinvention at the shul.

In addition to considering a move, B'nai Aaron is implementing an overhaul of its religious school, a move that congregational leaders hope will not only lower costs, but boost the quality of the education it provides.

"B'nai Aaron right now is very much a work in progress," said Rabbi Chaim Gelfand, a member for about four years who's slated to join the board in the fall.

Shifting demographics have often prompted synagogue relocation. In recent times, Congregation Brothers of Israel moved across the Delaware River two years ago from Trenton, N.J., to Yardley in Bucks County, where the bulk of its members reside; this year, Congregation Beth El changed its address from Cherry Hill, N.J., to Voorhees, N.J., several miles to the east.

But the situation at B'nai Aaron goes beyond demographics and economics. In fact, it is an example of a local Conservative synagogue mirroring the national trend of losing members to other streams. It also provides a glimpse into what happens when a different kind of rabbi comes in, drawing in new families while alienating some older ones.

Change in the Air

A major change in B'nai Aaron came in 2004, with the retirement of the shul's longtime rabbi, Martin Sandberg, who was in his mid-50s.

Malik, then 38, was hired upon her graduation from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

The synagogue's membership peaked at nearly 400 families in the 1970s. Since 2004, the synagogue's list of registered members has decreased from about 300 to about 205 families.

Stephen Asbel, the congregation's president, did acknowledge that as many as several dozen families left when Malik first arrived.

Some were uncomfortable with a female rabbi; others felt that she was more traditional regarding religious observance, such as enforcing stricter kosher standards at synagogue functions, according to Gelfand, who serves as the rabbi of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School's two elementary schools.

At the same time, Malik has attracted 40 to 50 new families -- many from outside Havertown and many with children in day schools. The newer families constitute nearly 20 percent of the congregation's current makeup, said Asbel.

While the picture may appear gloomy, Asbel and others said that, in many ways, the synagogue is more active than ever.

B'nai Aaron may be smaller in numbers these days, he said, "but its core is both magnetic -- in terms of drawing in people -- and vibrant."

That was evident during a recent summer Friday evening, when some 50 members -- children and adults -- participated in a spirited, Carlebach-style, music-filled prayer service.

But the problem, Asbel interjected, is also related to design. Built in stages between the mid-1950s and early 1970s, the structure has become costly to maintain, as well as to heat and cool.

This past spring, the board formed a committee to explore the option of selling the structure and relocating.

The rabbi is well aware of the fiscal problems. For one, said Malik, "our utilities are ridiculously high, given the size of our congregation."

Committee members are looking for either another Haverford Township location, a site in nearby Lower Merion, or even further west, toward Broomall, where Jewish families are still concentrated. They have informed congregants that ideally, the spot would be close enough to the current site to allow observant families to continue to walk to shul.

At a synagogue-wide meeting in March, when officers presented the possible move, some members were open to changes, although others expressed reservations, according to Marcy Weitz, board treasurer.

Asbel acknowledged that such discussions may intensify when a specific plan is actually proposed, but he stressed that the leadership agrees that the status quo can't continue.

Another development confronting the synagogue is a precipitous decline in its Hebrew-school enrollment, from around 100 to 30 students over the course of a decade. This, in part, is because about 75 kids among synagogue families attend Jewish day schools, and as such, don't generally attend supplemental Hebrew school as well.

Last year, the religious school opened up classes to all children, regardless of whether or not their families belonged to the synagogue. This fall, the congregation is unveiling a redesigned educational program.

Malik and education director Barbara Weisman pushed to transform the religious school from a traditional classroom setting -- with desks facing forward toward the teacher -- to a learning-center model, where students cluster around different stations in the room. Multiple lessons and activities will be scheduled to take place at once.

Weisman stressed that the new model should allow teachers to offer more individualized attention and make instruction more interactive.

"We realize our synagogue is small, and we want to offer that as a positive and work with students on an individual basis," said Weisman.

Malik acknowledged that, taken as a whole, the changes together might seem a bit sudden.

"If money had not been the issue, we would have done this more in stages," the rabbi said, adding that the new model will offer fewer subjects in a more in-depth fashion. "If you try to do everything well, you are not going to end up doing anything well."

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