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November 2, 2012 By:
Steel Town Synagogue Turns 100
In September 1912, Lewis and Matilda Fink were among a group of shop owners in Phoenixville who joined together to found Congregation B’nai Jacob.
A century later, their 66-year-old grandson Mike Trachtenberg —who has belonged to the Conservative synagogue his entire life — is serving as master of ceremonies at a Nov. 3 gala dinner that’s celebrating B’nai Jacob’s first 100 years and looking forward to its future.
This weekend will wrap up a year’s worth of events marking the anniversary. Other programs have included a gathering for graduates of the religious school, a tour of Jewish Phoenixville and a screening of Fiddler on the Roof at the historic Colonial Theater, which was featured in the 1958 cult film The Blob.
The final planned event is set for Nov. 4, when religious school students are slated to plant a time capsule for a future generation to unearth.
“This has brought back a lot of childhood memories,” Trachtenberg said, referring to the anniversary events.
In the early part of the last century, Phoenixville — about a 45-minute drive northwest of Center City — was a growing steel town. There weren’t a whole lot of Jews working in the steel mills, said Ruth Yeiser, a member since 2002 who has overseen the 100th anniversary celebrations.
But families such as the Finks came to the town on the banks of the Schuylkill River to open shops catering to the growing number of workers. The synagogue first operated in a storefront on Main Street. In 1957, it moved to its current site about three blocks away.
The area has seen its ups and downs, enduring some hard times after the closing of the Phoenix Steel Company in the mid-1980s. But the growing number of pharmaceutical companies that set up shop along the Route 202 corridor attracted new brain power — and Jews — to the area. Downtown Phoenixville has also undergone a resurgence similar to that of Manayunk.
Today, the congregation has 150 member families. The numbers have been more or less steady for the past decade. If anything, there has been a slight uptick.
“We are a very small synagogue,” said Yeiser, who has two children in the congregation's religious school. “We are very geographically diverse. Many of us do come from close to half an hour away. We are a Conservative synagogue, but our membership is made up of an entire gamut of Jewish backgrounds.”
Trachtenberg, whose own two children became B’nai Mitzvah at the synagogue, served as president during a contentious period in the 1980s, when, following a fierce debate, the rules were changed to allow women on the bimah.
Much has changed since then. Since 2005, Rabbi Rachel Brown has been the spiritual leader of the synagogue, the only Conservative congregation in the Philadelphia area where a woman serves as the sole rabbi.
“We grapple with all the issues that every other synagogue in the country grapples with,” said Brown. “How do we remain traditional while still appealing to and being open to people who are not traditionally observant?”
She said they are also grappling with the implications of having more families headed by interfaith couples. About a decade ago, a separate space was opened in the B’nai Jacob cemetery to allow for burial of interfaith couples.
“We know that we need to look forward as well as look back,” Brown said. “It feels like we are using our history as a springboard to propel us further into the next 100 years.”
In many ways, Trachtenberg said, the synagogue remains the same as when he led it and even when he attended religious school.
“It’s a hamische congregation,” he said. “It’s warm and people care about each other.”