By Gall Sigler
At a time when Conservative congregations are struggling to draw members, Congregation Beth El – Ner Tamid in Broomall takes a unique approach — a synergy of Conservative tradition and Reconstructionist teachings.
Such flexibility, the unaffiliated 160-member congregation believes, is necessary to keep tradition alive.
“We are really steeped in the tradition of the Conservative movement but actively try new things, involving new and different ways to engage with Judaism,” Rabbi Janine Jankovitz said. “We want people to know our doors are open to Jews from all walks of life, and non-Jews.”
The roots of CBENT date to 1956. A few congregants from Beth El in West Philadelphia moved to Broomall, whose Jewish population was insignificant at the time. They resolved to provide congregational services in the suburbs.
One of the founding members of the congregation, Lester Cohen, recalled in a 2013 interview with the Jewish Exponent that the congregation did not initially have a home. Members met at places such as a local Presbyterian church and the Paxon Hollow Country Club.
Once they decided to establish their own synagogue on Paxon Hollow Road, financial constraints did not dissuade them. When the bank asked for insurance, congregation members readily offered their homes as collateral.
Larry Gordon-Marrow has been a member of the congregation for more than 20 years, yet wasn’t active until his daughters reached bat mitzvah age in 2011.
Two weeks before his daughter’s bat mitzvah, Gordon-Marrow struck a deal with the president at the time — the latter would teach him how to read the Torah and, in return, Gordon-Marrow would participate weekly in a minyan.
Since then, Gordon-Marrow has served as the congregation’s treasurer and co-president and has been the executive director for the last three years. He continued crafting his Hebrew skills, even taking Skype classes with a tutor in Jerusalem.
“This is a wonderful place to be Jewish,” Gordon-Marrow said. “It is a warm, welcoming place.”
In 2020, Rabbi Barry Blum, who led the congregation for three decades, retired, paving the way for the newly ordained Jankovitz.
Jankovitz, a Philadelphia native and Temple University graduate, was ordained in 2020 by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
Judaism was dear to Jankovitz since childhood. Inspired by her local rabbi, Jankovitz developed a love for Jewish learning.
“I love study and Judaism and talking to others about Jewish texts,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I was lucky to have a career being able to do something like that.”
Meantime, members of CBENT conceive of the congregation first and foremost as a community.
Christine Strieb and her husband first became congregation members in 2005. The community’s commitment to its members’ well-being proved unwavering when Strieb’s husband suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
“Our community helped in so many ways — from gift cards for groceries and homemade kosher meals to help shorten my time in the kitchen while caring for three young children and his health care needs,” she said. “Even now, when I am there, people will still ask how I am almost nine years after his passing. Just thinking on that time fills my heart with thankfulness.”
Beth El – Ner Tamid faces its share of challenges. Due to diminishing membership, the congregation underwent two mergers, in 1992 and 2000. And the congregation is struggling with membership to this day. While the congregation comprised 270 families in 2013, it now serves just 160.
Jankovitz believes that a flexible approach to Conservative Judaism is necessary for the maintenance of custom.
“This congregation is really working hard to figure out how we are staying relevant the next 50 years,” she said. “Part of that work is looking within and asking where we need to grow.”
At the core of the congregation’s belief is a commitment to inclusivity. As such, Gordon-Marrow is certain that welcoming interfaith families is paramount to providing congregational services.
“The numbers of interfaith marriages are exploding, and we are trying to re-engage these Jews who are unaffiliated with a synagogue and don’t really have a home,” he said.
Crucial to re-engaging Jews in interfaith marriages was welcoming their spouses.
“We have made some changes with regards to interfaith family, where a spouse who is not Jewish can participate in services,” Gordon-Marrow said.
Although Strieb never formally converted to Judaism, she always felt part of the “congregational family,” as she calls it.
“I have never felt unwelcome or thought differently of because I wasn’t Jewish. We are a family at Beth El – Ner Tamid,” she said.
The congregation also stresses interfaith interactions as both a way to uphold that value and to strengthen the Jewish identity of its members. For example, the congregation has organized an annual seder with students of St. Mary Magdalen Catholic School for more than two decades. JE
Gall Sigler is an intern for the Jewish Exponent.