Farewell and Welcome, All at Once


Despite a light but persistent drizzle, a group of musicians played a slow and steady klezmer tune as a line of people marched behind them, carrying a number of Torahs. Every so often, a marcher brushed away a tear.

Sunday's Torah march was the final event marking the official merger between Congregation Beth T'fillah of Overbrook Park and Adath Israel in Merion Station.

Changing demographics in the once overwhelmingly Jewish neighborhood, an aging membership and a steady decline in congregational numbers all conspired to force Beth T'fillah to close its doors after 58 years, according to the synagogue's three co-presidents.

"Our membership was dwindling, and it became difficult to maintain," said co-president Ken Geller.

In the synagogue's prime in the 1950s and '60s, membership peaked at around 800 families, according to Rabbi Robert Rubin. As of this year, membership was down to approximately 165 families.

To preserve the synagogue's history at their new home, the lobby leading to the Adath Israel sanctuary will become a wing dedicated to Beth T'fillah's legacy, according to Rabbi Steven C. Wernick of Adath Israel. Organizers plan to display such items as the synagogue's Holocaust Torah, plaques and photos in this area.

Beth T'fillah started out holding meetings and services first in people's homes, then in a storefront on the corner of Woodbine and Haverford avenues.

In 1951, the congregation built a structure at 76th Street and Woodbine Avenue, nestled within the neighborhood of row houses.

Rubin said that the building will now be used by the Church of Christ.

Ruth Steinberg, 79, who has been a member for 45 years, will miss the small community feeling at Beth T'fillah.

"We were a tight-knit group, and this is a bigger place," she said before joining her congregants inside Adath Israel. "This is a change."

After the Beth T'fillah group marched through Overbrook Park, they boarded buses at the shopping center at Haverford and City Line avenues, then drove the short distance to Merion Station.

When they reached their new home, hundreds of Adath Israel members — including a large contingent of children and teenagers — greeted them with signs, balloons and raucous applause.

"I'm really bowled over by how welcoming the members are to us," said Rob Zipkin, co-president of Beth T'fillah.

During the ensuing service, Beth T'fillah members held six Torahs on the bimah; Adath Israel members held six of their own.

"We are so excited by this union, this marriage," said Wernick, who spoke underneath a white chupah with gold trim.

Later in the day, while members enjoyed food and dancing, Wernick described the benefits of the merger.

"These are shul-minded people. We'll have increased attendance and participation for programs and functions" at Adath Israel, he said. "By adding 125 to 150 households, it's a 20 percent growth overnight."

Rubin has been given a position at Adath Israel, and he plans to work alongside Wernick, who will remain the senior rabbi.

Although Rubin is no longer the sole religious leader, he said that he's excited about his new role.

"I'm flexible," said Rubin, who had been the head rabbi at Beth T'fillah since 1998, "and I wanted to stay with the community."

Rubin believes that his congregants will be able to mesh with their Adath Israel counterparts, and enjoy their new house of worship.

"A lot of people have a lot of emotions," said Rubin, "and a lot of members go back 40 or 50 years, but they realize we need a change."

Beth T'fillah member Cyril Adler, 53, described the event as "bittersweet."

"You close a door and open a new one," said Adler, who'd been with the congregation since 1995. "I look forward to assimilation with new congregants."

Milt Benditt, a 57-year-old member of Adath Israel, seemed visibly excited that his shul added a congregation with such a rich heritage.

While watching the young children dancing during the celebration after the Torah walk, Len Avritt — a Beth T'fillah co-president — noted how important it is for a congregation to have some young blood.

"This is an opportunity for a new beginning," he said.

Bruce Goldberg, president of Adath Israel, noted how happy he was that so many from Beth T'fillah seem pleased with their new home.

"It's a great day — a wonderful blending of synagogues and generations that fill the spectrum of Judaism today.

"This didn't have to happen. Everyone wanted this to happen to make sure there is a respectful end to Beth T'fillah, with respect to its legacy."


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