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This Synagogue's Not Closing, It's Just Moving

July 28, 2011 By:
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The "for-sale" sign outside of Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El

Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham has two signs out front. One says the 51-year-old building is up for sale. The other reads: "We're moving." The leadership wants to send the message: "We're not closing."

At its annual meeting in May, the congregation that calls it-self "The Little Shul With a Big Heart" approved renting space at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park.

The deal would afford Melrose B'nai Israel its own entrance and kosher kitchen, as well as office space for Rabbi Howard Addison and staff. Services would be held in the Reform synagogue's auditorium.

The move represents the latest area congregation forced to sell its building, merge or close due to changing economics and demographics.

The congregation, which counts about 225 adults as members, is scheduled to be in its new home by High Holidays 2012. But according to officials from both congregations, the agreement is contingent on Melrose B'nai Israel selling its building on W. Cheltenham Avenue.

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

"Sometimes, things are meant to be. Two years later, we have a better fit," said Larry Shipper, the synagogue's 58-year-old co-president.

The portion of Cheltenham close to the shul -- which borders Philadelphia -- is another example of a postwar suburb that has experienced a steady decline in its Jewish population.

"We see this as a way to continue to serve the community that we have been serving," said Addison, the rabbi. He said the two congregations have such different approaches that his synagogue should have no trouble maintaining its distinct identity.

Shipper said that decreasing membership has made it harder for the congregation to maintain its building. But the bigger issue involved the expense of installing an elevator, which older members needed. Keneseth Israel, he said, has everything on one floor.

The congregation -- the product of two mergers, one in the 1950s and one in the 1980s -- has advertised itself as a niche synagogue. The more old-fashioned Ashkenazi style of prayer is used in services, for example.

Although it hasn't had a Hebrew school since the 1980s, the congregation, in recent years, has had an infusion of parents with children in Jewish day school, said Shipper. This year, for the first time in more than 20 years, the congregation held a ceremony to honor 10 students who continued Jewish studies past Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

Sidney Weitzman, 81, who joined the congregation in the early 1990s, said very few congregants actually live near the shul and that moving to a more attractive location -- albeit one within a stone's throw of two other large Conservative synagogues -- may give the congregation a boost.

"It's a vibrant, ongoing congregation," Weitzman said. "Even some of the diehards have come to realize that the move is essential for the continuance of the synagogue."

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