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New Status For Old Site: A Historic Marker

April 5, 2007 By:
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From left: Ray Cohen, Rabbi Jon Cutler, Jarrod Cohen and synagogue co-president Jerry Fox show off a new plaque declaring Congregation Tiferes B'nai Israel a local historical site.
The year was 1923.

Living out in the "country," rather than on the crowded streets of Philadelphia, began to appeal to a sizable number of people, and some migrated to the suburb of Warrington, which was then predominantly farmland.

For his part, resident Harry Cohen was longing for a place where his family could worship that would also be close to home, so he built a cement block structure nearby, on Street Road, just off Easton Road.

That building became Congregation Tiferes B'nai Israel, and its first official Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services were held in September 1923, even though the building was not yet completed.

"They had four walls and no roof," said Harry's grandson, Ray Cohen, 84.

To celebrate more than 80 years of rich history, Warrington Township has declared TBI as a "Warrington Historical Site." During a ceremony last week at the Warrington Township building, more than a dozen members joined synagogue leadership in accepting a plaque that recognizes the building's legacy.

"I think it's a big honor that they acknowledged it," said Ray Cohen.

TBI's building is the oldest of any synagogue in Bucks County, though the title for the oldest congregation belongs to Bristol Jewish Center, which began in 1904. BJC, however, did not commission a building until 1948, according to Warrington Township.

A constant throughout TBI's history has been the Cohen family, many of whom still live in Warrington, and were on hand for the ceremony. Another centerpiece has been a Torah that the late Harry Cohen brought with him to America from his native Russia. It's been used for Cohen family Bar and Bat Mitzvahs ever since, and is also read on High Holidays. In January of last year, Jarrod Cohen used the same Torah during his Bar Mitzvah.

"I thought that was really outstanding," said Ray Cohen, Jarrod's great uncle, who read from that scroll years ago.

The early days of TBI correlated with Orthodox Judaism, then turned to the Conservative movement, according to Rabbi Jon Cutler.

The change began with women and men sitting together, noted the rabbi. "Eventually, they had women fully participating," he said.

During the late 1990s, the shul spent several years without affiliation and no full-time rabbi, which meant that members of the congregation ran many of the religious services.

The synagogue then joined the Reconstructionist movement in 1999, not so much out of ideology, according to Cutler, but because of its apparent inability to hire rabbis while not affiliated with a major movement. That was also Cutler's first year as religious leader.

At about the same time, the Warrington Township Historic Sites Program began recognizing structures in the area, and has since honored 63 buildings and homes with plaques, according to Kenneth Samen, a TBI member who is also the vice president of the sites program. No ordinances limit the congregation's ability to make substantive changes to the site.

In many instances, a recognition of historic status means that buildings cannot be altered in any significant way. This does not hold true with the Warrington designation, according to Samen.

The synagogue has added on to the structure three times -- the last time in 1962 -- with the original portion now serving as a library and classrooms.

Off and on since the 1970s, TBI drew up plans to tear down the original building and create a new synagogue, but these were eventually scrapped in favor of touch ups, like new chairs and lighting, fresh paint and a renovated basement, according to Samen, who also happens to serve an informal role as the synagogue's historian.

TBI currently has a membership of 125 families, and many were touched and thrilled by the honor.

"Ever since they heard they were getting the plaque," said Samen, "they're more proud of the building and excited about the future." 

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