In 1992, “a handful” of Jewish families in Chester County were looking for a spiritual “home,” according to the history section on Beth Chaim Reform Congregation’s website. So, they put an ad in the newspaper about an event they would hold for other like-minded families — and 60 people showed up.
On that day, Beth Chaim Reform Congregation was born, and people kept showing up. For 15 years, they spent their Shabbats in the Church of the Loving Shepherd in West Chester. Beth Chaim Rabbi Michelle Pearlman explained that congregants would “bring the Torah in” on Friday nights, as the church did not need its barn sanctuary until Sunday.
In 2007, the growing congregation moved into its current home on Conestoga Road in Malvern. Over the next 15 years, despite membership declines at many synagogues and the impact of COVID-19, Beth Chaim continued to grow by about 2-3% per year, according to President Alex Scherer.
Today the membership base includes around 220 households.
Scherer said the congregation has two major advantages.
“One is that we’re the only Reform synagogue in Chester County,” he explained. “No. 2, we have the luxury of having the best rabbi on Earth.”
Beth Chaim may attract people by serving as the only Reform option in the Philadelphia area’s westernmost county, but it keeps them coming back with the members already there.
When Beth Chaim congregants used to gather in the church barn, different people had to “schlep stuff in and out,” Pearlman said.
“They had to work hard to create a community. That’s the DNA. That continues now,” she added.
The other day, according to Pearlman, a member just picked up a vacuum cleaner and started cleaning the floor. On the Friday before Rosh Hashanah this year, the rabbi discovered that the stairs leading down to the creek behind the synagogue building were rotted. There would be no way to hold the Tashlich service on the water.
But over that weekend, a congregant bought wood, drove to the temple and fixed the stairs. He finished the project 15 minutes before Beth Chaim’s Rosh Hashanah under the stars service on the holiday’s first night. They would be ready for Tashlich the next day.
“You lead by example,” Scherer said. “Families help each other out.”
About a dozen founding families remain in Beth Chaim’s congregation, according to Scherer. But the rest of the membership base is younger.
When Pearlman joined the synagogue in 2014, she added adult education classes and organized trips to Israel and Eastern Europe. The new activities attracted “folks who have had their families and want to be part of their community,” she said.
“They join for the opportunity for friendship and spiritual nourishment and adult education,” she added.
But families with younger children have also joined. They like the religious school, according to Pearlman, which has 70 students and a project-based approach to learning.
Beth Chaim’s congregation is balanced across age brackets, according to Scherer. Robin Resnick, the executive administrator, is like Scherer in that she credits Pearlman for that.
“Everybody loves Rabbi Pearlman,” Resnick said. “She is a big attraction.”
Pearlman is, as synagogue leaders like to say, “warm and welcoming” in meetings with prospective congregants and dynamic on stage. As Scherer explained, “Every time someone meets with us and sits for a service and hears her, they want to join.”
The rabbi brushed off this praise and tried to give herself little, if any, credit. She said that she just tries to keep the fun going at synagogue — like on Yom Kippur this year when the temple brought in goats. The idea was that it was hard to admit that you were wrong, but that it would be easier to whisper it into the ear of a goat.
Or on Chanukah during COVID when Beth Chaim transformed the holiday into an outdoor festival of lights. Kids made papier-mache lanterns and hung them around the premises. And each night for every new candle, the community built a bonfire to keep warm.
It’s a tradition that continues today.
“The community loved it,” Resnick said.
Scherer joined Beth Chaim the same year that Pearlman started, in 2014. He was invited by a neighbor who himself had joined the previous year. When Scherer arrived at his first event, a Sukkot picnic on the synagogue lawn, he felt “very, very comfortable,” he recalled.
Days later, the Scherer family attended their first service. Their three young kids, naturally, were talking and carrying on, but nobody “shushed them,” the father said.
“I learned that the rabbi had instituted a no-shushing role,” he added. JE