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Northeast Congregation Celebrates 80 Years of Being 'Haimische'
"You don't have to get dressed up here, you don't have to compete with anyone. We're known as the haimische shul," said the congregation's president, Bea Streitfeld, 68, referring to the Yiddish word that means "home-like."
The feeling of welcome was nurtured by its longest-running rabbi, Abraham H. Israelitan, who died in 1987 after 40 years at the helm. (Rabbi Steven Nathan, 44, is now beginning his second year at the shul.)
"Rabbi Israelitan himself came to recruit us in our drugstore," recalled longtime congregant Elsie Sachs, 82. "We told him we can't read Hebrew fluently and he said not to worry - you get the atmosphere, you get the cultural and spiritual feeling, and you will come around."
That was enough for the Sachs family, whose children were all educated and had their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs at the synagogue.
In 1978, the congregation extended its welcoming hand even further by forming the Temple Menorah Institute for the Learning Disabled, providing tutoring for people with disabilities. Its first student, Jacob Marty Zipkin, a 40-year-old man with Down syndrome, trained with a rabbi for seven long months leading up to his Bar Mitzvah.
"His mother was so proud of him," recalled congregant Reece Cohn, 75, about the emotional service. Soon, he said, other synagogues in the area followed Temple Menorah's lead and began programs for disabled members in their congregations.
In 1987, Temple Menorah merged with Keneseth Chai, a Reform congregation originally located in Fox Chase. Cohn's wife, Ann, admitted that this merging of two, sometimes disparate views on Jewish practice initially led to some butting of heads.
"We had some growing pains there," said Ann Cohn, 72, who was the synagogue's president at the time. "You have a Reform congregation coming into a Conservative one. I used to hear from one woman, 'The services are boring. Why can't we change it?' I kept on telling her, 'This is not a show. You're here to pray.' "
The bickering, however, proved to be short-lived as the spirit of the synagogue finally won out, she said.
Their 80th anniversary gala in April demonstrated that Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai has indeed made it through good times and bad.
"Two or three synagogues in the area closed down, so we figured 80 is something to celebrate," said Ann Cohn.
According to current shul president Streitfeld, the synagogue still counts a membership of 140 families, and has plenty of other reasons to celebrate. Its mortgage is paid in full and its financial status is, she assured, "very solvent."
"Money is not our problem," she said. "Keeping membership up, keeping people involved is not a problem. I feel very sure that we will be here [in the future]."