Subscribe To our E-Newsletter
February 11, 2014 By:
Storms Precipitate Communal Synergy
There was no S.O.S. call in the snow last Shabbat, only members of Har Zion Temple and Congregation Beth Am Israel joining to sing “Adon Olam” to the tune of “Yellow Submarine” during Saturday morning services.
This especially snowy and icy winter has strained the city’s salt supplies, caused power outages and forced plenty of school and event cancellations. But it has also inspired various congregations to, as The Beatles put it, come together.
Over Shabbat in Penn Valley, Har Zion, which never lost electricity or heat in the wake of the Feb. 4 ice storm, opened its doors to neighbors without power — not only Beth Am Israel, but also Beth David Reform Congregation on Friday night.
Meanwhile in Elkins Park, when Beth Sholom Congregation was still without power on Shabbat — and had a candidate for its open cantor position coming — their members migrated to nearby Congregation Adath Jeshurun.
These impromptu collaborations among area synagogues are just a few examples of the ways in which Jewish institutions and people have helped each other during what has been an especially trying winter. With another big storm beating down this week, it's not yet clear how Shabbat will be transformed this weekend.
With 715,000 PECO customers losing power last week in the Philadelphia area, the synagogues and Jewish institutions that had electricity not only welcomed Jews who were not members, but people of all faiths who needed a warm place to rest, eat and charge their phones.
After the ice storm hit, staff members at Har Zion made calls to other synagogues to find out if they needed help.
“Everybody from the president to the rabbi, to everyone else, all fairly emphatically said, ‘Open our doors. If we’ve got light and power and heat, let’s do what we can to help,’ ” said Gavi Miller, Har Zion’s executive director.
That Friday night, Har Zion shared its chapel with Beth David while Beth Am Israel held services at a congregant’s home.
The next morning, Har Zion held a Camp Ramah youth Shabbat service in its auditorium while Beth Am Israel used the chapel, as well as space for its Shabbat morning religious school program. Fortunately, none of the congregations had any B’nai Mitzvah scheduled.
After the “Yellow Submarine/Adon Olam” mashup, the congregations joined together for Kiddush.
The loss of power was especially worrisome for Beth Am Israel because the Conservative congregation had its largest annual fundraiser scheduled for Saturday night. But the congregation held the fundraiser in Har Zion’s auditorium, and even managed to exceed its fundraising goal, officials said.
“There are so many synagogues out here and we have our own cliques, but it really shows that it’s more than individuals — it’s the whole community — and that’s great to see,” said Jessica Bishop, the rabbi’s assistant at Beth Am Israel. The congregation also held its Monday evening religious school program at Har Zion.
The opportunity to help out other synagogues allows congregants and leaders to fulfill the commandment of hachnasat orchim (welcoming guests), said Howard Glantz, the cantor of Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, which hosted Beth Sholom for Shabbat morning services.
When Beth Sholom lost power, staff members initially moved their operations to nearby Gratz College. Then, as they were making copies, the school’s lights went out as well, so they moved down the road to Adath Jeshurun.
The Conservative synagogues were already collaborating on a production of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and would have likely held joint services, leaders said, were it not for the cantorial candidate auditioning with Beth Sholom.
The Kaiserman JCC in Lower Merion and Conservative synagogues Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood and Temple Sinai in Dresher also made their buildings available for those looking for shelter from the storm.
JCC staff provided the basics — showers, places for people to charge their electronics — as well as activities to stave off boredom: movies, an obstacle course and fitness classes.
“This is what a community center should be,” said Beth Segal, director of the JCC. “Neighbors are connecting with each other. It’s a great community feeling.”
Rabbi Marc Israel of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El said his congregation has focused much of this year on the concept of kehillah kedosha, building a sacred community, and that the power outages provided the opportunity to take action. The synagogue offered movies, food and games for about 80 families without power on Feb. 6.
“I would say this was a time where it felt most like we were actualizing” the idea of building a community “to the greatest degree, that we really achieved that goal,” said Israel.
Ed Altman, executive director of Temple Sinai, said the staff puts significant time into planning for such situations and as a result, everything went smoothly — at least the parts they could control. The synagogue provided a free dinner of pasta and salads for about 200 people on Feb. 5. He estimated that only about a third of them were members of the congregation.
Just as they were finishing the meal, a transformer blew and the lights went out. The dishes waited, and everyone exited safely.
The dinner “was a wonderful community moment that really showed the essence of what synagogues are there for, to reach out to families and to try and help when needed,” Altman said.
When the weather gets dicey, leadership must not only make decisions about large fundraising events, musical productions and Shabbat services, but also the more ordinary meetings and daily minyans.
Miller said Har Zion will cancel Hebrew school or adult education programs but rarely, if ever, calls off daily services.
“We certainly encourage people to use their own best judgment but people understand that minyans are important and we prep the synagogue as though there is going to be a minyan every evening,” said Miller.
Staff at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, meanwhile, worried all last week as another round of snow was scheduled to arrive on Feb. 9, the date of its annual Super Sunday fundraiser.
The day before, Steven Strouss, a meteorologist at CBS 3, spoke with some Federation staff members who were anxious about icy roads and power outages hurting the organization’s largest annual fundraiser.
A Bucks County native who has at different stages been active in BBYO, Hillel and now Federation, Strouss said his interest in weather patterns started early.
“Other kids growing up said they wanted to be doctors or lawyers,” said Strouss, 34. “I found the power of nature and the influence it plays on people’s lives to be fascinating.”
“This winter has just been extremely active and relentless,” he said. “It has affected everybody.”