Aish Chaim does not own a building.
For services and other weekend programs, the Modern Orthodox congregation rents space in the Jewish Family and Children’s Service building in Bala Cynwyd. On some occasions, synagogue members have shown a willingness to gather in other places, such as backyards during the High Holidays last fall.
As long as the roughly 100 or so younger to middle-aged families are together, according to Rabbi Binyomin Davis, the shul, which he runs with his wife, Gevura Davis, is not an address; it’s a community.
And that’s why younger families have flocked to it in recent years, they say.
“What I love about Aish Chaim is it brings together Jews of different spiritual practices. Some are more spiritual, some are more religious,” said Melinda Engel, a Center City resident and Aish Chaim board member. “It’s a place where everyone can feel connected.”
Rabbi Davis moved to Philadelphia in 2015 to work for Etz Chaim, a Torah outreach organization. But in 2019, Etz Chaim merged with Aish Philadelphia, a group that brought “enlightening programs” to Jews on the Main Line, according to a Facebook description.
The rabbi and his wife were leading Etz Chaim as executive director and director of programming, respectively, and they took over leadership of the new organization, Aish HaChaim, as well. What started out as Aish HaChaim became Aish Chaim and, in the ensuing years, its membership grew, Davis said.
“We’ve probably grown it about one-third,” he added.
That one-third consists of people like Jason Blau, a 42-year-old Bala Cynwyd resident. Blau and his 8-year-old daughter joined the shul about seven months ago.
“We were looking for a Modern Orthodox community that would help us become more observant Jews,” the father said.
Blau and his daughter attend both Shabbat services and other events. The father credited Rabbi Davis, Gevura Davis and the community as a whole for opening its doors.
He said, “They’ve treated us like family,” and “given us the tools to guide us in our journey.”
That one-third also includes congregants like Engel, who joined Aish Chaim a couple of years ago.
In 2017, Engel met Gevura Davis on a trip to Israel and became friendly with the Davises. As she learned more about their shul, she realized that it could fill the void at the heart of her Jewish life. The mother of two was not a member of a synagogue at the time.
Now, Engel attends Gevura’s Saturday morning Torah class, while her boys, ages 10 and 13, go to weekend programs that Aish Chaim runs.
“I’ve found my community,” the mom said.
Both Blau and Engel grew up outside of the Orthodox denomination; Blau in a Northeast Philadelphia household he described as “secular” and “Conservative,” and Engel in an environment she characterized as “Reform or more Conservative.”
Yet they both wanted a religious community that was central to their lives, they said. They found that at Aish Chaim because it didn’t make the jump to Orthodoxy seem daunting.
Even if you didn’t know how to host a Shabbat dinner or observe the Sabbath, you were welcome, you could learn, and the Davises and fellow congregants were there to help.
“It inspires young families to want to learn,” Engel said.
Aish Chaim’s growth has motivated the Davises to expand the synagogue’s programming. Jordy Ufberg, a Penn Valley resident and the shul’s coordinator of youth activities, is now serving in that role as a part-time employee, not as a volunteer.
The synagogue offers clubs that train students for their bar and bat mitzvahs, programs for various age groups on Shabbat morning and a mommy and me class. During the pandemic, Ufberg started a middle school movie night, with chairs pushed six feet apart, and “something for every holiday,” she said.
But the list of programs extends beyond the childhood age groups, too. Rabbi Davis is in the process of recruiting adults for an Aish Chaim softball team.
“What I’d like to see us as is a big family,” the rabbi said. “You can come in, feel part of something.”
That ethos, though, may put a limit on Aish Chaim’s growth potential.
“We’re not a 1,000-member shul where nobody really knows each other,” Davis added. “We’re still small enough where people come in and feel welcome.”
But that doesn’t mean that the Orthodox synagogue can’t remain open to outsiders, according to the rabbi. Its email list is 4,000 addresses long. And while Shabbat service attendees are mostly members, they are sometimes outsiders, too.
“It’s just a warm, friendly place,” Rabbi Davis said. “That’s the culture we’re trying to create, and I think we are.” JE