Rabbi Jeremy Gerber has served Congregation Ohev Shalom of Delaware County for a little over a decade, and in that time he’s been witness to weddings, funerals, bar and bat mitzvahs and other special occasions.
Now he’ll be present for a different kind of commemoration.
The Conservative congregation will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2020, with its more than 270 member families hosting several events leading up to the occasion.
Congregation Ohev Shalom, not to be confused with Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, has a rich history. Its origins date to 1891 with the founding of Congregation B’nai Israel in Chester. Nearby Congregation B’nai Aaron was founded in 1915, and the two merged to form Ohev Shalom on March 29, 1920.
In the 1960s, the synagogue relocated to its current site in Wallingford. Another merger occurred with Congregation Mispallelim in 1973, and the synagogue’s school was renamed in Mispallelim’s honor.
“It’s really been fun to learn more
about Chester and about the Jewish community that was there, the families that have been instrumental,” Gerber said of gearing up to celebrate 100 years. “It’s been valuable to the congregation to learn about that history and to acknowledge this moment in time and to celebrate it, but as a launch into the next 100 years and beyond.”
The synagogue kicked off its centennial celebration last month at its annual congregational dinner. Displays with photos and newspaper clippings telling the synagogue’s story were placed in the lobby and seven more will be added throughout the next year.
“I’ve spent a fair bit of time looking back at old newspapers, and it’s given me a greater appreciation for the congregation to see just how active of a community and what a center of Jewish life it’s been for such a very long time,” congregation president Amy Graham said. “It’s really fascinating.”
The centennial celebration party will take place June 6-7 with a rededication of the synagogue’s sanctuary. All of the congregation’s living rabbis are invited to the occasion, including Rabbi Louis Kaplan, who led the congregation from 1961 to 1992. His accomplishments include overseeing the move to Wallingford and arranging for a Holocaust-era Torah to come to the synagogue in 1979.
The Torah originated in Loštice, Czech Republic, and was previously housed at the Czech Memorial Scrolls Museum in London. After decades of being unusable due to water and fire damage and general neglect, the Torah was restored and will be rededicated on April 18.
Another centennial event will be a visit from Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, who will speak Feb. 23 about the future of Conservative Judaism.
The synagogue will continue its programminig for the wider community as well. About four years ago, Gerber joined forces with community organizer Cory Long to create the Fellowship of Urban Suburban Engagement, or FUSE. The program connects various houses of worship, community groups and nonprofits in Delaware County to broaden community relationships and understanding. In 2017, it won a Solomon Schechter Award from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
The same year, the congregation took home another Solomon Schechter Award for a series of 14 mosaic panels in its sanctuary. The Children of Israel Collection depicts the 12 tribes of Israel along with Jacob’s daughter Dinah and a panel embodying priesthood. The panels were put together over 18 months and include trinkets added by congregants and community members.
The murals and awards are some of the many accomplishments Bonnie Breit — one of the tri-chairs for the congregation’s centennial committee — is proud to discuss.
An Ohev Shalom member since 1992, she described the synagogue as “warm and welcoming” and as egalitarian, having allowed women to be counted in a minyan since the 1970s. She said they practice “no-guilt Judaism” and that all families — including interfaith or not overly religious ones — are welcome to join.
While making an effort to reflect on its past, Ohev Shalom is also looking toward its future with the creation of a strategic planning committee.
“There is Judaism alive and well in Delaware County, and we really are grateful for our past,” Breit said. “But we’re genuinely excited about creating a future and serving as a hub for people who want to live a Jewish life at whatever level.”
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