Congregation B’nai Jacob is a Conservative synagogue. But it is not just open to Conservative Jews.
As the only synagogue in Phoenixville, it welcomes Jews from all denominations, according to Rabbi Jeff Sultar. The 120-household congregation is multigenerational, with congregants ranging from young families to seniors in their 90s.
With a smaller community, too, most members can know each other. And they place a premium on at least making the attempt, per Sultar.
“Everybody likes each other and spends time together,” the rabbi said. “Services, social gatherings, different celebrations.”
Sultar believes it helps that there are not many ideological considerations to get between people. Congregants come together simply because they want to practice Judaism.
“It’s a good place to call home,” Sultar said.
To make B’nai Jacob feel like a home, Sultar does his best to accommodate all types of Jews. Nowhere is that better exhibited than at the synagogue’s weekly Shabbat services.
Most Jewish communities have services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. But usually, one of the two is bigger than the other.
For more Reform-style Jews, the Friday night service, with more singing and English reading, is the bigger service. But for more traditional Jews, the Saturday morning gathering, with more Hebrew readings, is the important one.
At B’nai Jacob, an equal number of congregants, about 15 each, attend both.
“That’s very unusual in my experience,” said Sultar, who served at two other congregations before B’nai Jacob. “Most synagogues have a dominant service.”
Outside of Shabbat services, the rabbi doesn’t even need to do much accommodating. Members learn and work together pretty seamlessly regardless of their approach to prayer.
Congregation B’nai Jacob University, the temple’s education arm, offers classes on gun violence, the environment and “anything people might be interested in,” Sultar said.
Recently, some congregants realized that the Jewish Relief Agency, a nonprofit that helps fight hunger, does not service people that far outside of Philadelphia. So the members coordinated with JRA to get boxes and food items for a monthly distribution to people in the Phoenixville area. At each distribution, B’nai Jacob’s social hall is full of members, religious school students and other volunteers packing boxes, according to Sultar.
In addition, the synagogue serves 20 students in its religious school and offers a full schedule of fun events. A comedian from Israel Zoomed in recently, and a mentalist is coming later in May.
“It’s really profound to think of how important the community is to so many people and what they do to keep it vibrant,” the rabbi said. “When people voluntarily choose to be a part of something, it makes a statement.”
History suggests that B’nai Jacob has always had this quality. Over more than a century, its congregant number has always hovered in the 100-plus range, Sultar said.
Synagogue President Mark Snow explained that the congregant base stayed the same even through the pandemic era shift to virtual services and programs. Moving forward, Snow hopes to use a hybrid approach to maintain the congregation and possibly expand it.
Snow is forming a post-pandemic strategic plan, and it includes four pillars: attracting the next generation of members, inspiring volunteers, planning for financial health and growing the member base.
Snow believes that growth is possible in Chester County even beyond Phoenixville. Like many synagogue leaders, he learned during the pandemic that the digital reality could transcend geographical limitations. The president credited Sultar with creating “a virtual social hall” at the end of Shabbat services.
“It’s been a great experience,” Snow said. “Why wouldn’t you continue to do that to maximize engagement opportunities for your community?”
B’nai Jacob’s community education and fundraising events remain on Zoom, according to Snow. But the synagogue’s Manavon Street home is reopening for certain group meetings “as the chairs of those meetings want,” he said. A few weeks ago, the congregation held its first bar mitzvah in the building since before the pandemic broke out.
Come June, Snow wants to host the temple’s annual meeting in person and online. He also already has teams in place to work toward three of the four pillars in his strategic plan. They should be ready to set forth their objectives for the coming year in July.
“We’re going to continue with digital engagement but look to have hybrid models that support activities we do in the building,” the president said. “It’s all about maximizing engagement.” JE