Congregation B’nai Israel Ohev Zedek in Philadelphia turned 100 on May 22.
Yet the Orthodox synagogue is “a very young shul now,” said Michael Bohm, a member since 1976.
What Bohm means is that, among roughly 125 congregants, about 40 are young families who have joined in recent years. The longtime member estimated that all of the 50 to 60 kids in the synagogue are younger than 8.
At a time when shuls are struggling to retain membership and attract new members, Congregation B’nai Israel Ohev Zedek is “vital with young families,” Bohm said.
The longtime member attributed the healthy state of affairs to the synagogue’s young rabbi, Yehoshua Yeamans, 36. Since his 2015 hiring, Yeamans has worked hard at reaching young, Jewishly-oriented families and convincing them to join the B’nai Israel Ohev Zedek community.
“He’s a man with great drive and vision,” Bohm said. “He’s very personable. And to people moving in, he made them feel very much at home.”
Yeamans, a Scarsdale, New York, native, earned his rabbinical ordination in Pikesville, Maryland, then served Beth Israel Synagogue in Edmonton, Alberta, in Canada. But he knew the Philadelphia area because he often visited with his wife, Sarah Yeamans, who grew up in the Northeast and graduated from the Torah Academy Girls High School.
As the rabbi explained, he understood the lay of the land, the nature of the people and the rabbis in the area, and he liked them all. So when he got the chance to come to Philadelphia, he went for it.
Rabbi Aaron Felder, who led B’nai Israel Ohev Zedek for more than 30 years, died in May 2014 at 70, according to a Jewish Exponent obituary that year. The Orthodox shul had a generational congregation of people around Bohm’s age. It needed a new, and perhaps younger, leader.
Yeamans became that leader.
“It was a moment of transition for the synagogue,” he said.
At the time, B’nai Israel Ohev Zedek was already an amalgamation of three different Philadelphia synagogues: B’nai Israel, dating to 1922; Ohev Zedek, which opened in 1889; and B’nai Halberstam, founded in 1886.
When Bohm’s generation joined, the longtime member explained, older congregants told them they were giving them a gift — and to make the most of it. In the mid and late-2010s when Yeamans started, it was Bohm’s generation that got to do the giving.
“It was the same thing,” he said.
But it may not have worked without Yeamans, who started spreading the word among the Philadelphia Jewish community. Except he did not limit himself to the immediate area. He also went up to the Orthodox Union’s annual relocation festival in New York City.
At that event, young Jewish families go searching for a community. And for a few years, Yeamans was there to proselytize about his beloved new home.
He talked to people, gave out materials and convinced many to relocate to Philadelphia. Bohm can’t say exactly how many families joined from those events, but he attributed at least part of the synagogue’s recent growth to them.
“In New York, nobody would know if you died,” Bohm said. “Here, you can get in on the ground level and make an impact.”
Yeamans’ pitch worked because of his sincerity, his smile and the twinkle in his eye, Bohm said. The rabbi listened to people and paid attention to their needs. He also shared his vision for the synagogue and made them feel like they could contribute.
Today, they are.
The young shul has a mommy-and-me program as well as programs for children on Shabbat, among other activities for kids. On May 19, the synagogue brought in a moon bounce for the under-8 crew.
“It’s more just letting people know what’s here,” Yeamans said of his pitch to families. “The community sells itself. It’s a community filled with wholesome, genuine people.”
On May 22, congregants sat for brunch and celebrated the synagogue’s 100th birthday with a video tribute to members who have made aliyah over the years — a list that, according to Yeamans, is 45 strong.
“The story of our synagogues which merged into what we have today really shows the unique strength and spirit to perpetuate the community,” the rabbi said.
Moving forward, he wants to do more of the same.
He said members are starting to see B’nai Israel Ohev Zedek as a place that, even at 100, will continue “to be here for a long time.” The rabbi described the shul as “very centrally located” for Orthodox Jews in New York; Lakewood, New Jersey; and Baltimore, in addition to Philadelphia.
“There’s a lot of optimism right now,” he concluded. JE