Congregation Mikveh Israel has a new event space, a new assistant rabbi and a long-term plan for member expansion.
On Sept. 6, the Philadelphia synagogue announced the hiring of Rabbi Yosef Zarnighian. He will assist the temple’s senior religious leader, Rabbi Albert Gabbai, who has been in his position for 33 years.
Zarnighian is Mikveh Israel’s first assistant rabbi in 40 years, according to Gabbai.
His hiring follows the summer addition of an event space for weddings and bar mitzvahs. In response to congregant demand, synagogue leaders expanded the social hall and building premises between North Fifth and Sixth streets. Now, members and non-members alike can host receptions in the half-indoor, half-outdoor venue. Before, congregants would host services in the sanctuary, then hold their parties in other city locations, like a hotel ballroom.
Those who belong to the synagogue will get discounted rates when they use the new hall, Gabbai said. And now, Mikveh Israel will have a revenue-driver open to outside parties.
The Old City synagogue has about 200 families in its congregation. In the middle of the 20th century, it had around 500 member families.
A new social hall can help the shul return to mid-20th century numbers, Gabbai said. And the hiring of Zarnighian is an attempt to prepare for said demand, he added.
“It’s the synagogue’s plan to evolve and have more services and, therefore, we need an assistant rabbi,” Gabbai said.
Mikveh Israel opened in 1740 and is known as the city’s oldest synagogue. It predates both the American Revolution and even Judaism’s break into separate denominations.
According to member Jacob Oslick, who led the search committee to hire Zarnighian, the temple has lasted so long because it inspires intense loyalty.
Oslick grew up in the congregation as both a city and then suburban kid. After leaving for a time, he decided to return even though he was — and still is — working in New York City as an attorney. Oslick has been a member again for 10 years. And like his parents, he’s now raising his two kids, daughter Serafina, 6, and son Emanuel, 3, in the congregation.
Five years ago, the Oslicks moved to New Brunswick, New Jersey, to split the travel difference between his New York office and Philadelphia-based family and synagogue.
It’s that type of loyalty that sustained the congregation’s 200-family base during Gabbai’s tenure. And Oslick is banking on that loyalty to grow the congregation, as well as the fact that now Mikveh Israel has more to offer.
“Mikveh Israel is a very special place,” Oslick said. “It’s the right blend of being traditional while being completely non-judgmental.”
More people already seem to be recognizing the old synagogue, Gabbai said. A month ago, the shul hosted its first wedding in its new space. People hung out under tents on the grass between North Fifth and Sixth streets and walked through the social hall doors leading both outside and back in.
It worked, and Mikveh Israel has already received “many requests” for more big events, Gabbai said.
“For a small wedding, you can be in the social hall,” he said. “For a large wedding, you can open the doors.”
If the plan works, Zarnighian may become the man who inherits its success. Both Gabbai and Oslick mentioned the new hire as a possible successor to the senior rabbi.
During the search process, Zarnighian attended Shabbat services several times and gave some lectures over Zoom. Oslick said that when the young rabbi interacted with the congregation, he showed an openness and passion that convinced the committee he was right for the job more than any interview.
“He seemed to understand what we were about, who our population is, the need to welcome everybody,” he said.
Synagogue leaders also liked his educational background and current military service: Zarnighian studied at Yeshiva University in New York City before being ordained at the Shehebar Sephardic Center in Jerusalem. As he starts his new position in Philly, he is also a first lieutenant and chaplain in the Air Force Reserve.
“We’re a patriotic synagogue,” Oslick said. “We like the idea of a chaplain serving in the armed forces representing us.”
Zarnighian may be representing Mikveh Israel now, but Gabbai has no imminent plan to retire.
Instead, the point is to have two rabbis for now. There was a time when Mikveh Israel had three rabbis, but due to budget cuts, it dropped to two and, ultimately, one.
“Now the congregation’s plan is to expand,” Gabbai said.
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