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Sign of the Times

June 14, 2012 By:
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A Conservative and Reform synagogue will soon be sharing a building.

Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El, a Conservative shul in Cheltenham for more than 50 years, is set to move to its new home at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.

On the afternoon of June 20, congregants are planning to transport 11 Torahs from the old sanctuary to the new. Due to the number of elderly members, they hope to parade the Torahs in convertibles for most of the 3.1 miles and walk the last leg.

The rental arrangement represents an experiment in space sharing. It also raises the question of whether or not Melrose B'nai Israel will flourish without a building of its own. Leaders of both synagogues have said they see no reason why it can't work.

"We get to keep our personality. We get to keep our shul," said board member Ira Weinstein, co-chair of the membership committee.

The Keneseth Israel building, constructed in the 1950s, was envisioned to serve a large community. In past decades, the congregation had in excess of 1,500 families. Now that number is fewer than 1,000, and some of the members affiliate with the congregation's satellite branch in Blue Bell.

So with extra space on its hands, it made the offer to Melrose B'nai Israel, which will occupy the south wing, with its own offices, sanctuary and kosher kitchen.

A key selling point for the 225-member congregation is that everything will be on one floor. Its original building on Cheltenham Avenue is on two floors, and the shul has lacked the funds to put in an elevator for elderly members. The cost of improving the building made staying there a financial impossibility, according to leaders.

That building is under agreement to be sold and is expected to become a kidney dialysis center.

Three years ago, the Melrose B'nai Israel board approved a measure to share space with another area Reform synagogue, Kol Ami. But congregants, in a contentious vote, rejected the idea, both because of logistics and because older members didn't want to leave the Cheltenham building.

The synagogue hasn't had a Hebrew school since the 1980s. But in the seven years since Rabbi Howard Addison became religious leader, the shul has seen a minor resurgence with more new members in their 40s and 50s. Currently, about 20 families with children who attend day schools belong to the synagogue.

The portion of Cheltenham close to the shul -- which borders Philadelphia -- is an example of a neighborhood that has experienced a steady decline in its Jewish population over the last 20 years.

In the past, the shul had served the immediate area but now members reside all along the Old York Road Corridor, and leaders think the move to a more central location will help.

Board member Warren Nachmann characterized the move as "a new chapter" in the synagogue's more than half-century of life.

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