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The Long and Winding Road: A Toast to 50 Years at Beth El-Ner Tamid

January 11, 2007 By:
Ryan Teitman
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At the anniversary gala of Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid, past presidents of the current and pre-merger congregations were honored, including (from left) Edwin Arsht, Richard Brody, Jerome Simkovitz, Harold Sampson, Ernest Riesenfeld and William Golton.
Throughout the last five decades, Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall has followed something of a circuitous route -- with services held in locations as various as a firehouse and a country club, and with two mergers occurring in the matter of a decade. To acknowledge its many tangential moves as well as to celebrate its considerable achievements, the congregation held a 50th anniversary gala recently that recognized the high points and looked to the future.

The Nov. 18 gala brought together past presidents from the three congregations that now make up the synagogue, and honored those founding members who made the dream of a congregation in Broomall a reality.

Congregation Beth El Suburban was founded in 1956, sponsored by Congregation Beth El of West Philadelphia (which eventually sold its property and became part of Beth Hillel/Beth El in Wynnewood). Lester Cohen was a member of one of 10 young families that had moved into the Broomall area, though he still maintained membership at Beth El in West Philadelphia, where his father was the congregation's president. "We figured it was time to build a synagogue" in the suburbs, said the now 82-year-old Cohen. He was designated the suburban congregation's coordinator, since the members were still technically part of Beth El in Philadelphia, and so could not have a president.

"There were not many Jews out here in Broomall" at the time, said Ronald Cohen, another one of the synagogue's founding members and also a past president, though no relation to Lester Cohen. There was no building at first, so members met at various locations throughout the community: a firehouse on West Chester Pike, the local Presbyterian Church and even the Paxon Hollow Country Club.

"I remember carrying a Torah to services every Friday night," said Lester Cohen, who kept the scroll in his home during the week.

When board members decided it was time at last to build the synagogue on Paxon Hollow Road, the bank wanted collateral, and so members offered up their homes, he added. "From there we grew."

"It's been a labor of love for many years," said the 76-year-old Ronald Cohen.

While much of this was going on in Broomall, Ernest Riesenfeld was an active member of Ner Tamid in Springfield, Delaware County, beginning in 1969. But when demographics began to shift in the 1990s, the synagogue's board decided that a merger was the best option for Ner Tamid. "The synagogue in Springfield was no longer feasible," said Riesenfeld, a past president. The Hebrew school was down to 20 students, he noted.

"Ner Tamid found itself in a dilemma," said William Golton, another Ner Tamid past president. Even though the synagogue's financial situation was stable, the Jewish population was declining, and young families were just not moving into the area.

"It never was a large congregation" to begin with, said Golton.

In 1992, Rabbi Barry Blum of Beth El performed a symbolic marriage ceremony, including a ketubah, and thus united the two congregations. In 2000, there came another merger, this time with Temple Israel of Upper Darby. Membership was dwindling at that congregation as well.

The recent gala that looked back on all this history attracted 150 attendees, who also managed to do a little preparation for the future as part of the celebration. A "Goods and Services Auction" at the event, along with the gala itself, helped to raise $10,000 for the congregation. "It's the largest amount of money we've ever made," said Dianne Belitsky Shames, the chair for the event.

"The congregation can't survive on just the dues," said Riesenfeld. The biannual auction has been going on for the last 10 years, and helps to keep the synagogue's dues reasonable, he added.

Other fundraisers are also held, to keep the Hebrew school and other programs affordable for congregants as well.

Maintaining Jewish identity in the community is a key goal for the congregation. Rabbi Blum, who has been at the 270-member congregation since 1989, has found that doing interfaith work with local groups in the predominately non-Jewish area helps to strengthen relationships and foster a greater sense of belonging within the community.

"We are very involved since Rabbi Blum came along," said longtime member Claire Dichter. The congregation donates turkeys to needy area families each Thanksgiving and holds a Passover Seder with students from the Hebrew school and their counterparts from St. Mary Magdalen Catholic School in Media.

Just because the congregation is in the suburbs does not mean that there are no problems to tackle, added Dichter. "We all have to be aware of the poverty in our area," she said, including Jewish families in need.

Riesenfeld stressed that keeping lines of dialogue open through interfaith efforts is the key to a respectful and honest community, anchoring the synagogue in the present and setting it on a course for the future. "It increases communication between the various religions," he said, "and I always think that communication is the best way to avoid friction."

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