Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El is a synagogue with no preschool or religious school. The Conservative congregation of between 250 and 275 members has not had younger members in “many years,” Cantor Stephen Freedman said.
And since 2012, it has rented a small wing in the corner of a much bigger synagogue, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. Now, in the process of returning to in-person activity post-COVID, Melrose B’nai Israel congregants don’t even have a full-time rabbi.
But don’t mistake this old community for a dying one, according to Freedman and synagogue President Shelley Schwartz. Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El has a pulse, and it beats every morning during minyan, every Saturday during Shabbat services and every week during the Torah portion study session — the only class to survive the pandemic.
It was also beating more consistently and perceptibly than it had in a long time on Jan. 21. That was the day when Rabbi Saul Grife, the longtime but retired spiritual leader of Beth Tikvah-B’nai Jeshurun in Glenside, made his debut as the temporary leader of “the little shul with the big heart,” as Melrose B’nai Israel calls itself. After Grife led the service, he hosted a lunch and learn.
“With Rabbi Grife starting, because I know he has a certain following, the in-person numbers are going to pick up,” Freedman said. “They’re coming to look at us. Whether they’ll affiliate, I don’t know.”
Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El has been around for more than 60 years. Before moving to the Old York Road corridor, it had its own home nearby on Cheltenham Avenue. But by the early 2010s, that building was “no longer viable,” as Freedman explained, quoting people who had explained the situation to him. (The cantor joined Melrose in 2019.)
Bathrooms were not on the same level as the sanctuary. Plans to make the building more accessible were going to cost too much. The aging congregation would have to find a new home to suit its needs. And it found that at KI, where it has its own entrance, office and sanctuary. When you walk through the double doors, you see Melrose’s sanctuary/social hall, split it into two in a single room by a divider, to your left. And then you see an office to your right. On the back wall, a sign reads, “The little shul with the big heart.”
It’s not a lot of space, but it’s enough, according to Freedman.
“We have a very cordial relationship,” he said of the partnership with KI.
During that period of change, Schwartz joined the synagogue. She chose Melrose B’nai Israel after her rabbi at Congregation Adath Jeshurun, Seymour Rosenbloom, retired and after she tragically lost a son, Joshua, who was 27. Schwartz was looking for a new place that could meet her spiritual needs, and Rosenbloom knew Melrose’s rabbi at the time, Charles Sherman. Schwartz decided to give it a try.
When she walked in for Shabbat services, she was greeted by other congregants. “Would you like to sit with us? What’s your name?” They did not just let Schwartz sit by herself.
But what sealed it for her, she explained, was when she told the man who ran Melrose’s minyan at the time, Len Cohen, to call her if he needed someone. He called her twice that first week, and she’s been going ever since.
“Minyan is a place, you start your day off with prayer, and that prayer is not only helpful to you, but you are there to help other people. If you want to say Kaddish or if you have a yahrzeit or if you have something to share, that’s where you go to do it,” she said. “I find minyan to be a special place. I think it’s one of the most important ways to start a morning.”
Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El can still play this role in people’s lives, and it does. Its membership has held steady in recent years at 250-275, according to Freedman. Combined virtual and in-person attendance for Shabbat services is usually between 35 and 50 people. And even though many members have not yet returned post-COVID, Freedman and Schwartz hope to add more activities moving forward.
All of this is worth preserving, according to synagogue leaders. That is why they are starting a six-month search for a full-time rabbi. In questionnaires, town hall meetings and prayer sessions, they are asking members what they want from a new spiritual leader. ■