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Orthodox Congregations Seek to Attract Families

April 6, 2011 By:
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Two Philadelphia-area Orthodox congregations are hoping to entice young, observant families to relocate from the New York metropolitan region and help grow their respective communities.

Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood and Congregation Sons of Israel in Cherry Hill, N.J., each sent a delegation to the March 27 "Emerging Jewish Communities Home and Job Relocation Fair" at the Grand Hyatt hotel in Manhattan.

The idea, organizers said, was to match families who may be overwhelmed by the cost of living in New York with smaller communities that are looking for more members, and where housing and other costs are less pricey.

All told, more than 1,000 people attended the fair, perusing displays and meeting representatives of 38 communities nationwide. Many congregations were offering incentives such as free synagogue membership and day-school tuition discounts.

This was the third time in four years that the Orthodox Union has organized the fair, and the first time that Cherry Hill and Wynnewood took part. In the past, the event had highlighted communities that were much further from New York.

Four other communities from the Keystone State were also on hand: Allentown, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and White Oak, a suburb of Pittsburgh.

Communities must apply to take part. In order to be eligible, they must have at least one synagogue affiliated with the Orthodox Union, which defines itself as centrist Orthodox, and a nearby yeshiva.

Noticeably absent was Bala Cynwyd/Merion, home to perhaps the state's most populous Orthodox community and anchored by Lower Merion Synagogue, which has a membership of more than 450 families.

According to several sources, Bala Cynwyd is considered to have such a large Orthodox community that it can no longer be described as emerging. The area is also home to other Orthodox institutions, including a Young Israel congregation -- which is generally considered farther to the right on the religious spectrum than the O.U. -- and several outreach shuls, including Chabad and Aish HaTorah, that also serve Orthodox families.

Beth Hamedrosh, which has closer to 100 families, has been in existence since the early 1960s, but has been at its current site since 2007, when it completed a long-contemplated move from the Overbrook Park section of Philadelphia.

Rabbi Yonah Gross, 30, came to the shul a little more than a year ago following the retirement of the longtime religious leader, Rabbi Shlomo Caplan. Gross said that just being included in the fair was a big deal for Wynnewood.

"It's a wild thing. A thousand people over the course of five or six hours. It's pretty intense," Gross said, noting that his group brought along information about real estate and job options in the Wynnewood area.

The shul is offering $10,000 for any new family that moves from outside the Philly area, and commits to hosting Shabbat dinners and other events. The Kohelet Yeshiva High School in Merion Station said that it will offer a 25 percent discount on tuition for out-of-town families that move to Cherry Hill or Wynnewood.

Alise Panitch of Cherry Hill's Congregation Sons of Israel, which has about 250 families, said her group worked hard to stand out in the crowd.

All eight members of the delegation, which also included representatives from the Politz Day School of Cherry Hill, wore red T-shirts. They even brought a face painter to help entertain restless children -- and keep their parents talking a little longer.

"We had really meaningful conversations with people who are frustrated with where they are," said Panitch. Still, she added,"it kind of reminded me of a speed-dating environment."

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