Temple Brith Achim in King of Prussia had two founding moments, according to Rabbi Eric J. Lazar.
In the late 1960s, a few couples met under a tree in Valley Forge National Park and decided to establish “a Jewish presence in the area,” says the history section on the synagogue’s website. Then, more than a decade later, in September of 1982, the congregation bought its home at 481 S. Gulph Road.
Today, the Reform synagogue remains the only one in the Upper Merion-King of Prussia area. Jews come from nearby towns like Collegeville, Wayne, West Chester, Spring-City and Royersford to worship, according to Temple Brith Achim President Steve Kantrowitz.
He said the community was born to give local Jews a place to worship, to celebrate holidays and joyous occasions, to get people through tough times and to teach children and others to be happy and comfortable being Jewish. And as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, it is still playing that role.
“After 50 years, that’s still something special,” Kantrowitz added.
But half a century in, the synagogue, like so many others, is hanging on. Lazar is in his 19th year leading the congregation and, when he arrived, it included almost 300 households. That number rose to about 305 by 2007. But the financial crisis and The Great Recession hit members hard, dropping the household total to around 270. And ever since, it has steadily declined.
Lazar attributes the drop to “people not wanting to connect with houses of worship” anymore. He said that people often do not see the worth “until there’s some need.” And when there is a need, “many people will reach out, even if they’re not connected.”
The members’ ages range from newborn to almost 100, according to the rabbi. One-third of the 200 member households have children in the temple’s religious school. But that means that two-thirds do not.
Lazar called maintaining a hub for Jewish life in the Valley Forge area “a huge obligation” and “something we take very seriously.” A handful of founding families in the congregation remind members of that, too. There also is a picture of a founding member named Linda Rice hanging outside of the shul’s library.
“We’ve been able to stand on our own,” the rabbi said.
To try and continue to do that, synagogue leaders are focusing on relationship-building. During the pandemic, Kantrowitz started a new routine in which he goes through the synagogue directory and calls every congregant. He does that twice a year.
“People feel appreciated,” Lazar said.
Temple leaders are also working to make the outdoor portion of their property an active part of synagogue life. They recently beautified their garden by adding trees and vegetation. They also made the entrance handicap-accessible. Now, if three or four people want to have a meeting there, they will be more likely to do so, Kantrowitz said.
But leaders don’t want to stop with the garden. Kantrowitz mentioned that there’s a plan to build a pavilion that will host services, meetings and other shul activities.
“We’re making better use of the outdoors,” he said. “People enjoy that. It was brought to the forefront with COVID. It was healthier. Obviously, the air circulation was better. But also I think people like it. It’s a nice environment to be in. To hear the birds. People enjoy communing with nature.”
Kantrowitz sees the outdoor upgrades as part of the temple’s long tradition of adding to its facility. As he put it, the congregation started by using other people’s facilities. Then it bought a home with a few classrooms and a sanctuary. Over time, it added a social hall, a kitchen and a lifelong Jewish learning center.
There are still families in the area “that want to have that opportunity” to become part of a synagogue, Kantrowitz added. And in today’s world, “it’s nice to not have to drive an hour.”
“We’re right there,” he said.
For interested families, Temple Brith Achim tries to make membership affordable. Every year, leaders send congregants a bare-bones budget that explains how much each member needs to pay to reach that bigger number, according to Lazar. But congregants can fill in whatever number they can afford to pay.
Other shuls have adopted similar systems in recent years. But Temple Brith Achim started with the approach a decade ago. It’s just a reality of synagogue life today.
“We’re still making it happen,” Lazar said. JE