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Shul Celebrates 10 Years in Pocono Mountains

August 10, 2006 By:
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Rabbi Barbara Goldman-Wartell and Father John Boyle
Congregation Bnai Harim -- a Reform Synagogue in Monroe County in the Poconos -- expected to hold its first-ever service in its newly constructed building on erev Rosh Hashanah back in 2004.

But earlier that day, synagogue officials learned that Tobyhanna Township hadn't granted the congregation an occupancy permit -- lighting had to be installed in the parking lot. The plan to celebrate High Holidays in the new building looked as if it wouldn't come to fruition.

In a crunch the congregation went to Our Lady of the Lake -- the Catholic church were Bnai Harim had met the previous five years free of charge -- and asked if they could begin the High Holidays there. Not only did Father John Boyle welcome Bnai Harim congregants to his church, he told them to hold services in their own building the next day, and he would make sure nobody from bothered them.

Nobody did. The lights and permit came shortly afterwards.

On Aug. 5 and 6, Bnai Harim celebrated its 10th anniversary and selected Father Boyle as the keynote speaker for Shabbat services. Boyle discussed the improved state of Catholic-Jewish relations over the past 40 years -- and how whatever help he provided to the congregation was dictated by his faith.

"Jesus taught that we have to give shelter to the homeless," said Boyle in an interview. "If we couldn't open our doors to Bnai Harim, then we should have closed our doors forever and thrown away the key."

As for turning down the congregations' offer to rent space at the church, and offering it for free seven years ago, Boyle said, "How could I say that you had to pay us in order to worship our common creator?"

A decade ago, a small group made up of summer vacationers and retirees decided they needed a synagogue, whose name literally means "children of the mountains." Before meeting at the church they held services in different members homes.

For the past two years, they have met in their own 2,800-square- foot building on Route 940. Since then, membership has jumped from 36 people to 84.

Attendance in the Hebrew school has tripled; six Bnai Mitzvot were held last year. That same number were held over the preceding nine years.

"When we started, we didn't even think of opening a Hebrew school," recalled Anita Schneider, the synagogue president.

Schneider explained that unlike most synagogues, Bnai Harim's busy season is the summer months. But she explained that as more and more Jewish families are settling full-time in the Poconos -- many commuting to New York and New Jersey for work -- the synagogue is getting busier throughout the year.

Schneider added that it was the closeness she felt to fellow members that helped her and her husband Gene decide to switch from being 30-year, part-time residents to full-time ones.

She stressed that the reception from the community, especially from Our Lady of the Lake, has been far warmer than anyone could have anticipated.

"When you go into an area and you are the first synagogue ever, you never know quite what to expect," she said. "We often feel that, if the model we've developed with the church were followed by more people, we wouldn't have all the conflict in the world that we're having."


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