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Touching Up the Jewish Centers of City Life

September 22, 2005 By:
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Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City has undergone a yearlong, $5.5 million renovation of its main sanctuary.
Bryan schwartzman Jewish Exponent Staff Nearly 30 years ago Steve Dickstein, then a lawyer just getting his career going in Center City, needed to a find a place to say Kaddish each day for his father.

He headed down to Congregation B'nai Abraham on Lombard Street, which he recalled visiting with his grandfather when he was child, and found a couple of old men sitting outside on folding chairs, asking passers-by if they were Jewish in the hope of scraping together a minyan.

"When I walked in, I probably lowered the average age to 80 - I was 30, 31 at the time," said Dickstein, now 57 and president of the congregation. "They would sit around and decide: 'Are we going to fix the plumbing? Are we going to repair the windows, or will we just put up duct tape?' It tugged at my heart."

Now, that same building is far from deserted. It plays host to Friday-night singles dinners that attract dozens of young professionals, and is home to a preschool and a flurry of adult-education courses. But the 90-year-old building still causes headaches - the plaster inside the sanctuary is peeling away - and now that it's clear the congregation is not struggling to stay afloat, its custodians can no longer take an ad hoc approach to its care.

This November, B'nai Abraham will hold its second annual fundraiser at the Downtown Club in the hopes of adding to a building fund that will help ensure the survival of the physical structure, and likewise, the growing religious community it serves.

"I consider it divine intervention that B'nai Abraham has been able to weather the storms of those social waves that carried Jews away from the city, and endure to a time when we have seen a re-emergence of a vibrant, vital and exciting Judaism in Center City," said Dickstein.

By the 1970s, much of the city was pockmarked by urban blight and it was struggling financially, partially due to the widespread disappearance of manufacturing jobs. With that downturn - coupled with the migration of so many Jews - the urban synagogue seemed to many to be a nostalgic anachronism that served a relatively small number of elderly Jews, and had largely been supplanted by its suburban counterparts.

But now that Center City is midway through its second decade of revival, many of the 10 congregations nestled between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers downtown are also telling similar tales of resurgence, and planning and building for what seems to be a promising future.

"As young professionals are coming into the city, and with the condominium market, we are experiencing a surge of couples joining and getting involved," said Michael Yaron, president of Congregation Kesher Israel, a traditional synagogue in Society Hill that for the past 10 years has spent millions in refurbishing its nearly 100-year-old building. It is also devoting much of its resources toward expanding programming.

As Yaron stated, "it's the best thing that's happened to the synagogue."

Analyzing the Numbers
Numbers tell part of the story of how two distinct demographic groups have driven the revival of Center City and the synagogues that call the area home. From 1998 to 2004, more than 6,000 new residential units were added to downtown Philadelphia, with 1,500 expected to be added by 2005, according to a report prepared by the Center City District and the Central Philadelphia Development Corporation called "State of Center City 2005."

According to that same report, more than four times as many restaurants exist in Center City than there were back in 1991. Moreover, median home prices have (adjusted for inflation) increased five-fold in the last 20 years.

There have been no studies completed that show a sizable increase in the number of Jews in Center City since the "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia 1996/1997" was released. But Catherine Fischer, who directs the Center City Kehillah - which was established seven years ago to foster interaction between congregations and reach out to the unaffiliated - estimates that the number has climbed from 17,000 to at least 20,000.

"People are seeing that the city has a lot to offer," said Fischer, who moved with her family from Center City to suburban Cherry Hill, N.J., more than 15 years ago. Then, she added, "I wish I was back there."

Though it's not clear whether Center City synagogues have experienced an across-the-board growth in membership, a number of congregations have made substantial reinvestments in their physical structure. At the very least, such capital growth is rooted in optimism for the future.

And the congregations that don't own their own buildings - Congregation Beth Ahavah, the Gershman Y Congregation and Congregation Leyv Ha-Ir, "Heart of the City" - continue to invest their resources in programming.

In fact, "this particular group doesn't want a building - they don't seem to think they need one," reported Joanne Perilstein, president of Leyv Ha-Ir, a Reconstructionist synagogue with less than 50 members who meet at the Society for Ethical Culture's building on Rittenhouse Square. She explained that her congregation is hopeful that the influx of empty-nesters to the city will eventually bring more members to the congregations.

But for most downtown congregations, dealing with antiquated buildings is just part of everyday life. The most expensive and elaborate physical restorations taking place are at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Reform synagogue that for decades has kept its feet in both the city and suburbs, maintaining a campus in Elkins Park, as well as its landmark 1928 structure on North Broad Street.

Its $5.5 million renovation of the main sanctuary - whose ornate walls and ceilings were inspired by the Great Synagogue in Florence, Italy - was just completed after a year of scaffolding taking up the primary worship space.

"In the last 10 years or so, we've been right in the path of progress," said Rabbi William I. Kuhn, whose congregation, at the corner of Broad and Green streets, was at one point considered to be above the northern border of Center City.

But as neighborhoods from Fairmont to Bella Vista have undergone gentrification, the boundaries of Center City have likewise been extended from Washington Avenue in the south to Poplar Street in the north, according to Paul Levy, president of the Center City District, a public-private partnership created in 1991 to make the downtown area more attractive to business and residents.

At Rodeph Shalom, the congregation is also planning a $4.5 million project to create some much-needed classroom space, and to construct a new main entrance so congregants can enter the building from the parking lot, rather than from Green or Broad Streets.

Along similar lines, Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel is in its third year of a five-year capital campaign that aims to strengthen its endowment and pay for building improvements, such as repairs to its antiquated air-conditioning system and updates to its security system. It has already raised $4 million, and hopes for another million dollars.

"We are optimistic about our future growth and growth in Center City," said Bob Fleischman, the congregation's president.

Over the summer, Society Hill Synagogue completed more than $80,000 worth of interior work. The shul also now has a permanent Beit Midrash. Rabbi Avi Winokur said that for the first time in more than a generation, the congregation is considering adding to the building, which could be very challenging considering that it owns a relatively small plot of land on Spruce Street between Fourth and Fifth streets.

Congregation Mikveh Israel, a Sephardic synagogue sitting next to Independence Mall, also has big plans, including the possible expansion of its existing building.

How to Keep the Young
While all this represents a boon to certain congregations, all the money spent in the world on renovations will come to naught if these synagogues cannot maintain a core of young families.

Currently, between 30 percent and 40 percent of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel's members are under 35, according to Fleischman, which makes it very different from the typical suburban Conservative synagogue, where numbers tend to swell from the ages of 35 to 55, when more and more parents are focused on raising children.

So what can a shul do to encourage young singles and young professionals - who often tend to leave the city once they marry and start families - to stay put?

"That's not us; that's the city," proclaimed Fleischman. "Tell the city to improve public schools and make it more affordable to live in Center City."

As it turns out, the city is indeed concerned with keeping people in town. Levy, of the Center City District, pointed out the importance - necessity, really - for a downtown area to maintain the brain power and tax base supplied by educated 20- and 30-somethings.

"We've done a remarkable job in getting young professionals and empty-nesters here," said Levy, but the trick is convincing families to raise their kids in the city.

Susan Klehr, president of Rodeph Shalom, said that the attitudes of young urban parents are at least starting to change.

"My peers, when their kids turned 5, automatically moved to the suburbs," she said. "Now, they are staying."

Some take as a healthy sign the fact that a number of synagogues have opened preschools in the last five years, including B'nai Abraham, BZBl and Kesher Israel. (Society Hill Synagogue has run one since 1975.)

Despite the optimism, Winokur said that he, for one, is sometimes left in a quandary over the young-family question.

"The bottom line is, like other urban synagogues, we do have flight of members, who, when their family gets bigger, head for the suburbs," he said. "Where are the young families going to fit in? We don't know the answer to this question yet.

"But no synagogue can abandon young families. They are the future of Judaism."

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