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Neither Wind Nor Rain Can Stop These Spirited Congregants

June 23, 2005
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Congregation Ner Zedek-Ezrath Israel-Beth Uziel in the Northeast
Temple Brith Kodesh renovated a duplex on Frontenac and Wellington streets in Northeast Philadelphia 50 years ago, taking what was just a house and converting it into a synagogue. Over the course of a summer all those years ago, members volunteered their time to design a sanctuary, build an office for the rabbi and create classrooms where the children could learn - all in time for Rosh Hashanah.

"Twelve electricians and carpenters gave up their summer vacations," recalled congregant Harriet Gurmankin. "It came Rosh Hashanah, [and] we were ready. This is the kind of devotion that we have."

Five years later, in April 1960, Brith Kodesh then merged with Boulevard Park Jewish Congregation to create Congregation Ner Zedek.

The synagogue - Congregation Ner Zedek-Ezrath Israel-Beth Uziel, as it is now known - last week celebrated its 50th anniversary, culminating in a Sunday brunch June 12, where about 100 members swapped stories about the synagogue.

Ruth Gross talked about the 1960 merger and admitted that, at first, there was some animosity between the two groups. But such emotion quickly dissipated.

"After a year or two, you had to think twice if this was a Temple Brith Kodesh person or a Boulevard Park person. We really became Ner Zedek," said a smiling Gross to a round of applause.

In the early 1960s, the newly formed congregation chose to build a permanent site on a nearby patch of ground at Bustleton Avenue and Oakmont Street, the sanctuary at Brith Kodesh being too small to accommodate members from both congregations. To get started, a large circus tent was erected at the new site, permitting them to hold Rosh Hashanah services that year.

But the weather didn't comply.

Stiff winds and rain beat down on the tent; still, synagogue members never wavered in conducting their five-hour service.

"We were afraid the tent would be blown away," said Marvin Munstein, the current co-president of Ner Zedek.

The existing temple was built on that tent site, with dedication ceremonies held in 1964. Since then, Ner Zedek has become a staple in the neighborhood, merging with Congregation Ezrath Israel in 1970, and then Beth Uziel Congregation in 1995.

'Chairs All Over the Place'
By 1970, the synagogue had become so popular that, according to Munstein, 1,700 people attended the Yom Kippur services that year.

To fit in the excess worshippers, chairs were placed in the auditorium behind the last permanent rows of the sanctuary, as well as in the alcoves and on the auditorium's stage, just 100 feet away from the rabbi leading the service.

"We had chairs all over the place," said Munstein after the brunch.

Gurmankin, past president of the Sisterhood and a current member of Ner Zedek's board of directors, also told the story about the 1968 protest against the fast-food chain Jack in the Box, which attempted to put a drive-in restaurant next door.

"We had a big Hebrew school with lots of little kids. They run. We were concerned about our children," she said.

So she and six other congregants stopped traffic on Bustleton Avenue in protest. When the police came with a paddy-wagon, Gurmankin admitted to being surprised.

"We didn't believe they'd actually arrest us," she said.

The synagogue hired an attorney, and the seven protesters didn't make it to jail.

"We laugh about it now, but Jack in the Box never came," said Gurmankin.

In actuality, it's been longer than 50 years since Gross started worshipping with like-minded people; while Brith Kodesh bought its first building in 1955, it had formed four years earlier. For others who came later, it's been a bit less than 50. Nobody seemed to mind the inexact numbers; they seemed content just to honor their temple.

"We call it 50-plus. For those of us who were founders, it was in 1951 that we started. Some use 1955, because that summer is when they renovated the first building," explained Gross.

Munstein wanted to make the anniversary festivities this year to show that the synagogue remains loyal to a neighborhood that's recently lost a number of its shuls.

"We wanted to show the public that we were still here," he said.

Today, Ner Zedek still holds minyans every day. "We are a full-service synagogue," said co-president Joe Cooperstein. "We have services seven days a week - twice a day."

Although she moved out of the neighborhood more than 20 years ago, former member Shirley Ludin returns for minyan.

"There is a force here that drives you like a magnet," she said. "It has left an indelible print on my life."

Cooperstein also recognized that the synagogue's devotion should be to its neighborhood. Looking to the future, he said that Ner Zedek plans to remain in the Northeast.

Said Cooperstein: "Our intention is to serve the community as long as possible."

 

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