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Moving to the Main Line

June 21, 2007 By:
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Beth Hamedrosh members march a recently acquired Torah scroll to its new home.
The sidewalk in front of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood is roped off. The driveway remains a work in progress; large heaps of dirt fill a space set to become a parking lot.

In short, the building is still very much a construction site.

But the lion's share of the work has been completed, and earlier this month -- after seven long years of waiting -- the Orthodox congregation officially moved into its new 5,700 square-foot home. The first services were held on June 1 and a dedication ceremony, attended by hundreds of people, took place two days later in the new sanctuary named for donors Mel and Eunice Miller.

For Beth Hamedrosh, getting from point A to point B has been no small challenge.

"After all these years of waiting and hoping and praying, and overcoming hurdle after hurdle, and after so many meetings and discussions, it is hard to describe how it felt to finally realize our dream," said Evan Aidman, vice president of the shul.

It all started back in 2000, when the congregation -- which has roughly 80 families -- purchased a corner lot at the intersection of Haverford and Manoa roads. Starting in the 1960s, the synagogue had been located in the Overbrook Park section of Philadelphia.

But in the 1990s, more and more congregants moved to the Wynnewood side of City Avenue. When it comes to a shul where members walk to and from Shabbat services, having a building close to their homes is key to the health of the synagogue.

Up until the relocation, about 60 percent of congregants who lived in Wynnewood faced about a mile-long walk back to Overbrook Park. Now, the other 40 percent face a lengthy walk. Synagogue president David Eckmann admitted that a handful of elderly Overbrook Park residents probably wouldn't be able to make it to the new building.

He said that a number of families who live within a few blocks of the new building have volunteered to open their homes to fellow congregants on Shabbat.

Blessing in Disguise
Once the land was purchased, the congregation faced obstacles at nearly every step. The plan initially encountered vigorous community opposition and a series of contentious zoning hearings.

Nevertheless, in 2002, Lower Merion Township granted the congregation approval to build a congregation.

Shortly afterward, a neighbor voiced concerns over the proposed height of the new building. Eventually, the congregation did agree to lower the sanctuary's cupola, and also add additional soundproofing.

Mark Zohar, building committee chair, explained that the delay may have actually helped the synagogue raise more funds.

Initially, the shul's leadership had planned to add a modest $1 million sanctuary to the already existing three-story house, built on the property in 1922.

But Zohar said that the delay wound up altering that plan into nearly $3 million worth of work.

According to Eckmann, the synagogue sold the old property last year for $119,000.

As part of that agreement, Beth Hamedrosh was allowed to lease the building for one year, until construction was completed.

When March came and went -- and the new building wasn't finished -- the congregation had to vacate its old home. For several months, the shul held daily prayers and Shabbat services at a nearby restaurant.

"It was a little odd. It was like leaving Egypt and going into Israel with a little stay that served our needs, but certainly wasn't our final destination," said Eckmann.

The old Overbrook Park building is now home to Temple Kezarim, a congregation of Hebrew Israelites. The group is comprised of African-Americans who consider themselves descendants of the ancient Israelite tribes, but do not practice normative Judaism, according to Prince Kezaredar Yisrael, religious leader of the congregation.

Beth Hamedrosh's Wynnewood building is essentially two structures joined into one. On the new side is a lobby and sanctuary that seats 160 people designed for optimum acoustics without the use of an amplification system. The wide-open foyer, which displays stained-glass pieces originally displayed in the Overbrook Park building, prominently utilizes the stone exterior of the 1922 house.

The older part -- which has a smaller chapel, office space and a children's room -- is in need of a whole interior renovation, according to Zohar. In short, the building and the grounds, which require landscaping, are still very much a work in progress.

"Every conclusion leads one to a new beginning," said Rabbi Shlomo Caplan, who for the past 30 years has served as religious leader of Beth Hamedrosh.

"It's just like on Simchat Torah," he added. "You finish reading the Torah, and start from the beginning again right away." 

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