Mesivta Gym Debuts in Retrofitted Church Sanctuary

Students and adults line up in the new Mesivta High School gym to play knockout. | Photo by Andy Gotlieb

The sound of sneakers squeaking on maple flooring — combined with the bouncing of basketballs and assorted clunks and swishes as shots were attempted — wasn’t anything different from what’s heard in countless gyms worldwide.

What was different, however, was the location: a former Methodist church sanctuary.

The Mesivta High School of Greater Philadelphia in Bala Cynwyd debuted its new gym on March 4, complete with basketball competitions, the Sixers’ Stixers drum line and a truck selling kosher barbecue parked outside.

The gym itself is a striking place, with reminders of its former use as the sanctuary for the United Methodist Church of Bala Cynwyd still in place.

While the new floor is of gleaming wood, the raised platform where the pulpit stood remains, as do the elaborate stone pillars (now covered to a height of several feet with padding) and windows that once housed religiously themed stained glass. Those windows now contain regular glass protected by fencing.

Rabbi Avraham Steinberg, who serves as the head of school, said the new gym will be important for the school’s 44 male students.

“It’s a good, healthy outlet,” he said. “They study the Torah hard, they study everything hard.”

“You had 50 boys in high school without an outlet to play and have fun,” added David Stein, president of the school’s board of directors. “I would say it’s transformative.”

Steinberg said the sanctuary was sitting vacant before the project began about a year ago. The project included removing pews and making the gym handicapped-accessible.

Constructing the floor proved to be a challenge, Stein said. The sanctuary’s original floor is made of stone, so a subfloor of two-by-fours had to be constructed before the floor could be installed.

And the school was mindful of the history of the building, which dates to 1931 and features classic religious architecture, Stein said. He pointed to several square boxes high above the floor; those were built to cover sculptures of angels.

“The question was, ‘How do you respect everything but move forward with what the school now means?’” he said.

Although the new gym is an impressive site, the court is too narrow for official games for the school’s basketball team, the Mustangs. The team will continue to play home games at nearby Friends’ Central School, Steinberg said. It previously practiced at Cynwyd Elementary School and other facilities.

The Mustangs will be among 27 schools, including Kohelet Yeshiva High School in nearby Merion Station, participating at Yeshiva University’s 27th Annual Red Sarachek Invitational Basketball Tournament from March 15 to 19.

The Orthodox high school for boys is now in its fourth year and is steadily growing, Steinberg said, noting that there were just 15 students the first year. Ideally, he hopes for about 80 students.

After a stirring performance by the Sixers’ drum line, many of the students took the floor to participate in a knockout competition — a basketball game where the objective is to make a shot before the person in front of you.

But a student did not win the first round — that honor went to Rabbi Gershon Schwartz, the dean of students and a former high school basketball player. Schwartz’s smooth shooting form enabled him to eliminate several would-be challengers.

Schwartz said he was a proponent of the gym’s value.

“There are two types of education — the formal and the informal,” he said. “[The gym] adds another component to the school.”; 215-832-0797


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