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The 'Little Shul That Could' Celebrates a Significant Milestone

May 1, 2008 By:
Michelle Mostovy-Eisenberg
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Beth Tikvah B'nai Jeshurun synagogue president Jan Zacharjasz and Rabbi Saul Grife herald in events to celebrate 50 years.

The date was Sept. 29, 1958, four in the afternoon of erev Rosh Hashanah. Holiday services were set for 8 p.m., but there still wasn't a finished floor in the modest synagogue sanctuary of the new congregation, Temple Beth Tikvah.

So what did the congregants do? They got right down on their hands and knees, and finished the work themselves.

"We were still laying tiles on the floor for services that night!" exclaimed Edith Schwartz of Jenkintown, a founding member of the Erdenheim congregation.

Even though she had to hurry to place those tiles, "everybody did something. Everybody helped build that building."

That hands-on spirit continues to this day, as congregants and clergy celebrate the 50th anniversary of Beth Tikvah B'nai Jeshurun, the merged name of the Paper Mill Road shul. This year also marks the 10th anniversary of Rabbi Saul Grife's tenure as the congregation's leader.

According to Schwartz, back before B'nai Jeshurun Synagogue merged with Temple Beth Tikvah in the early 1970s, the small group of about 15 original congregants met wherever they could find available space to rent, which was usually the Flourtown Country Club, but also occasionally a school administration building, a member's home or the local firehouse.

Schwartz recalled attending Friday-night services at the Flourtown Firehouse five decades ago, and just above where they were praying, was a large head of a moose tacked to the wall. "These are the things you remember," she said with a chuckle.

Every one of the original congregants contributed something to the synagogue's physical "coming together": a member who was an architect designed the first building, and another secured the steel needed; one congregant built the ark and bimah stands, while another made the ark curtain and bimah covers; one family put in the kitchen, and others painted the walls.

As Jewish demographics in Philadelphia began to change 40 years ago, B'nai Jeshurun Synagogue of Mount Airy, formerly of Strawberry Mansion, experienced a drop in membership, and merger talks began with Beth Tikvah. The name of the new joint congregation became Beth Tikvah B'nai Jeshurun in August 1973, though it is more fondly referred to these days as BTBJ.

Through the years, both the congregation and synagogue have undergone some subtle changes since the days of Rabbi Alexander M. Shapiro, its first rabbi, back in the late 1950s. But, noted Grife, who came to the pulpit in August 1998, the shul retains its longstanding congregational traditions while also embracing a contemporary approach to Conservative Judaism, such as the music-enhanced services that the rabbi and cantor lead with evident gusto.

Physical changes have also taken place to the building, with additions and renovation projects over the years that have been made to accommodate a congregation that now stands at around 300 families, its largest membership to date, and a growing preschool and day-care program.

"We've gone through peaks and valleys," explained synagogue president Jan Zacharjasz, though she noted that a strong volunteer effort from members helps make BTBJ "all that it is."

She also acknowledged that many congregants and staff wear two (or more) hats. For example, Valarie Hurwitz served as the preschool director and executive director for many years before she became the full-time executive director last year. Even Cantor Arlyne Unger doubles as educational director, which was her original position with the congregation for two years before she came to the pulpit in 1995.

The 50th anniversary was marked over the weekend of March 28, with a special Friday-night service honoring founding and longtime members, as well as current and past congregational leaders. More than 280 people attended an anniversary gala on the following evening, during which Grife --"our rock star," as Zacharjasz described him -- brought out his guitar and serenaded those present.

Appropriately, the celebration was held at the Flourtown Country Club, where the original Beth Tikvah congregants held their first services 50-plus years ago.

Anniversary events continue with an open house on May 9. The rabbi will perform his original rock opera, "Tales From the First Book," based on Genesis, which he recorded during his recent sabbatical, on May 14.

After all these years, the shul remains the same beloved "home away from home" to longtime congregants like Burt Abrams.

He and his wife, Barbara, have been members of BTBJ for 38 years, ever since they moved to Wyndmoor.

Even though they moved to Elkins Park in 2000, Abrams said that he still drives to Erdenheim for weekly services at BTBJ, where he is the "gabbai in chief." Abrams does this, he explained, because he simply enjoys "the relationships I have there."

"We manage to put together programs like the big synagogues," he noted, "yet we have a smaller budget."

In fact, Abrams pointed out, congregants continue to personally provide the maintenance and other necessities BTBJ needs.

"Many things we just do ourselves," he added. "It's the little shul that could."

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