Beth Am Israel gets ready to celebrate its 90th anniversary on Oct. 18.
The celebration at Beth Am Israel marking its 90th anniversary will be going on for a full year.
They’ll commemorate a congregation that has somehow managed to hold together despite attrition, changing demographics, a dwindling economy and other obstacles that could’ve marked its demise. They’ll celebrate their rich litany of rabbis, law professors and other top-level professionals who’ve helped build the synagogue — literally — from the ground up.
“This all started with an overall view of celebrating the community and its history,” said Margie Yavil, co-chairman — along with her younger brother, Dr. Bob Steiner — for their upcoming 90th “reunion” on Oct. 18, and everything that will follow. “We wanted to honor the past, celebrate the present and plan for the future.
“In 1926, the cornerstone for the synagogue at 58th and Warrington was laid. In 1927, the building was dedicated.”
But no matter how you add that up, it doesn’t come to 90. In fact, back in 2007, Beth Am Israel had a big 80th anniversary celebration. So celebrating the big Nine-Oh just eight years later doesn’t compute.
Which is not to say the synagogue and the people who’ve kept it going all these years don’t have something worth celebrating. In fact, the story of Beth Am Israel is an inspirational one.
“It almost mirrors the Jewish community in general,” said Steiner, who grew up and was Bar Mitzvahed at the old Cobbs Creek location, which lasted until they moved to Penn Valley in 1972. He subsequently moved to California, but has since returned and reconnected.
“It was a beautiful synagogue in West Philadelphia where just about everyone belonged,” continued Steiner, who notes that the building — since converted to become the home of Bethany Baptist Church, meaning they didn’t have to change much of the lettering — still exists. “It was almost like a village within a community. The rabbi, Morris S. Goodblatt, was a very charismatic individual and there was a lot of warmth and feeling there.
“What happened was, the neighborhood changed and when they moved out here there was a period like the Dark Ages. They didn’t have a building and there were other synagogues already established that were flourishing.”
But Beth Am Israel refused to go away. Perhaps it was because of people like the Cutlers. Leonard Cutler recalls his grandmother bringing him along to a Bar Mitzvah when he was only 7 or 8. From then on he was hooked, attending Hebrew school and getting Bar Mitzvahed, later becoming a member of Boy Scout Troop 195, which held regular Thursday night meetings at the shul.
And once he met his future wife Racine, who likes to kid that they named a Wisconsin city after her, they were fixtures. And have been for the past 68 years. “He loves this place,” said Racine, when 91-year-old Leonard was too overcome with emotion to talk, just moments after telling stories about Rabbi Goodblatt and what the old place used to be like. “He thinks it’s his second home here. But I’m a new member. I’ve only been here 68 years.”
That means they were here when Beth Am Israel left West Philly and resettled in Penn Valley, where it remained in a location literally still a part of its current 2004 site situated in a different part of the same lot. One of the charms of the place is they didn’t leave the past behind, taking the heavy, oak-paneled doors from the ark — along with the chairs from the bimah — with them. They’re all prominently displayed, along with all those confirmation class pictures and other relics.
“When I look at those doors upstairs and the other things that came from the original building, I feel so much at home,” said Margie Yavil, who, like her brother, left the area for a number of years. “I feel comfortable here.
“In the hallway are all the confirmation classes and I’m in there. There’s a picture of a model seder and here I am at 7 years old sitting at the table. I’ve come home again.”
But this wasn’t home for Rabbi David Ackerman, who grew up in New York.
“I was friendly with Rabbi Marc Margolius, who was here before me,” said Rabbi Ackerman, who spent 15 years at Tifereth Beth Israel in Blue Bell before coming to BAI. “A number of times, I heard him talk about the history of this community and the way in which the synagogue at 58th and Warrington was really the anchor for the Jewish community.
“He shared that in context with the idea that’s what synagogues would aspire to, even in a different time, I completely agree.
“I think that’s exactly the kind of community we want, where people find the old furniture and their 7-year-old picture on the wall and show that to their grandchildren.
“That sense of community is the connection for everyone.”
So even if the numbers don’t add up, that’s what they’ll be celebrating at Beth Am Israel this year. A congregation that has become modernized and youthful — currently at 390 families, after once sinking down into the low 100s… A congregation with a promising future, yet with a loving connection to its past… A congregation with an open mind toward how religious its members want to be.
Ackerman says it doesn’t get any better than that. “That’s a great legacy and I’m a lucky rabbi,” he said. “I get to work with engaged, committed, dynamic and caring people who share a similar vision and goal.
“We want to build a Jewish community together. I’m quite convinced that it goes back to the very beginning and the author of that vision was the founding rabbi, Morris S Goodblatt, whose chair I get to sit in.”
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