After more than three decades as the leader of Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid in Broomall, Rabbi Barry Blum, 64, will transition to a new role as the rabbi emeritus. On July 1, he’ll hand over the reins to Rabbi Janine Jankovitz, 33.
“In 31 years,” Blum said, “you get to do a lot of different things.”
Blum, a Wynnewood native and Reconstructionist Rabbinical College graduate, arrived at what was still called Congregation Beth El in 1989, after he’d spent the three preceding years at Bustleton-Somerton Synagogue. Beth El Congregation was of a good size, with an active sisterhood and men’s club, but it was not involved in social action to the degree that Blum believed that it should have been.
He set to work convincing his congregants that greater community involvement would be the right direction for them. There was just one small problem, however: his age.
“I was a rabbi of a community where everybody was older than I was,” Blum said. “It was a little bit of a shock for congregants to say, ‘This is our rabbi? He’s so young, how’s he ever going to tell us what to do? We’re all much older than he is.’ So it took a little time.”
But over the years, Blum’s work paid off and today CBENT’s social activism is a key part of its mission. Since 1999, the synagogue’s religious school has cherished its partnership with the St. Mary Magdalen School, which involves bringing students together to discuss their faiths and traditions.
In the same vein, Blum has served as president of the Marple Newtown Clergy Association. The synagogue has long been dedicated to fighting food insecurity, and Blum frequently led Pesach seders for resident of Martin’s Run, an assisted living facility. He’s also been a nursing home chaplain and counseled prisoners.
That spirit of giving has earned CBENT plaudits; in 2015, the congregation made headlines when it hosted almost 50 worshipers from Holy Spirit Catholic Church at the synagogue for a full weekend so they would have an affordable place while they were in town for Pope Francis’ visit to Philadelphia.
“As a synagogue, we ran with it because we thought it was just a wonderful opportunity for outreach in the community, to learn about how important it is to help others,” Blum told 6ABC.
In 1992, Congregation Beth El took in congregants from Congregation Ner Tamid in Springfield, and became Congregation Beth El-Ner Tamid. The event was marked with a ceremony led by Blum, who officiated a symbolic marriage between the two synagogues, ketubah and all.
Since then, CBENT has served as a refuge for other Jewish people in need of a new synagogue, taking in even more congregants from Temple Israel of Upper Darby in 2000. It wasn’t just a helping hand to the congregants, but a good way to keep up membership of the original synagogue, too.
“Every time it looked like the synagogue was losing numbers and in need, we were strengthened by the local community, and that helped to strengthen Beth El,” Blum said.
Blum’s wife, Amy, “should be on the best rebbetzin list,” he said, and he credits his children, Ira and Shoshana, with helping to create a warm environment at the synagogue. That family environment, according to synagogue president Amy Blake, is what makes CBENT what it is.
“That’s the reason they join, that’s the reason they stay,” she said.
Last fall, after Blum notified the synagogue that he would retire at the conclusion of his contract, a job posting for a new rabbi went up. Jankovitz, who was in her final year as a student at RRC, was intrigued. She was able to land a phone interview, which led to a weekend-long visit.
“It felt very close to who I am in my own practice, and the kind of congregations I look for when I want to go myself to daven, to go and pray and be a part of a community,” Jankovitz said. The warmth of the congregation matched that of her predecessor, too.
“It made complete sense to me that he was their rabbi,” Jankovitz said. The board extended her an offer just before Pesach, and her first service will be on the weekend of July 4th.
Blum, in his emeritus role, isn’t going anywhere. In fact, he’ll stay on at the synagogue to do one of the things he does best: lead the synagogue’s social action efforts.
[email protected]; 215-832-0740