Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Center City is a combination of three different synagogues that once existed in Jewish Philadelphia — Temple Beth Zion, Temple Beth Israel and the Neziner Congregation.
The first to open, Temple Beth Israel, did so in 1840. That makes BZBI the third-oldest congregation in Philadelphia, according to the history section on the temple’s website.
For a religion in which l’dor v’dor, or from generation to generation, is a core principle, maintaining an almost 200-year-old Conservative congregation is a serious responsibility.
But BZBI leaders say it comes naturally. You can feel the tradition when you walk through the doors on South 18th Street, according to Rabbi Abe Friedman, the temple’s spiritual leader.
People dress how they want to dress, Friedman explained, in everything from three-piece suits to T-shirts. They also sit wherever they want since BZBI members have never believed in markers of status. And when congregant Eileen Dwell joined in 2014, people were friendly right away and quick to reach out.
“I feel comfortable there,” she said. “I feel comfortable spiritually; I feel comfortable socially.”
Akil Bowler, the chair of the building committee on BZBI’s board of trustees, is a convert to Judaism who joined the temple around the same time that Dwell did. And he echoed her sentiment.
“The congregation and community as a whole is not cliquey,” he said.
How could it be? The respective synagogues that formed BZBI were places of refuge for Polish, German, Eastern European and Russian immigrants to the United States. Merging was a business decision, but it also brought those groups together. And today, while BZBI no longer needs to serve as a place of refuge for immigrants, it does remain a melting pot.
Among the 400 member households are people who have lived in the city for decades, empty nesters who moved downtown from the suburbs and young families who live in the Graduate Hospital and Point Breeze neighborhoods, according to BZBI Assistant Rabbi Abi Weber. While “a lot” of congregants have joined within the last 10 years, Friedman said, several have been members for almost 50 years. Certain families are “second, third, even fourth generation in the congregation,” he added.
The mix has helped BZBI avoid some of the difficulties that have plagued other local synagogues in recent years. The 400-family congregation has remained stable over the past five years, with old members leaving and new members joining each year. BZBI’s early childhood program and religious school have 65 and 45 students enrolled, respectively. And 60 to 70 people attend Shabbat services each week unless there’s a special event like an aufruf, in which case more people attend. Most of that crowd is in-person now, too, since BZBI is back open after staying closed or partially closed for much of the pandemic.
“It’s people who are committed to living in the city. BZBI is their central hub,” Weber said. “A lot of our Shabbat regulars are families who are really committed to being part of the fabric of the city, and that’s nice to see.”
Friedman, Weber and other temple leaders are in the process of developing a strategic plan for the 2020s. There are not yet specifics to share, but there is a principle to follow, according to Friedman. He wants BZBI to continue fostering a sense of belonging, but to do that for the wide variety of Jewish people today. He mentioned Dwell, a synagogue member for decades in the suburbs before joining BZBI, and Bowler, who started his conversion process in the past decade, as two types of members whom the synagogue should work to accommodate equally.
“How do we make BZBI a place where people will feel like they are seen and centered in the experience of our community?” Friedman asked. “In the next 10 years, I’m committed to deepening our investment in terms of belonging as a core piece of BZBI.”
That is what BZBI’s leaders have always tried to do. Now they are just attempting it with a different and modern population of Jews.
“There’s a huge weight of responsibility to hold true to the past but to help it build for the future,” said Lynne Balaban, the synagogue’s executive director. “So much of what we do is making sure we’re respectful of the culture and community but also helping it come into the next age or century for families who will utilize it down the road.” JE