Shalom Hall at Shir Ami in Newtown was bursting with music and celebration on Saturday night.
The gala was the culmination of a weekend devoted to recognizing the installation of Rabbi Joel Simon, who officially began at the synagogue in July.
It followed a special Shabbat service Friday night, in which Rabbi Simon was on the tail end of the passing of the Torah. The sacred scrolls went from Rabbi Emeritus Elliot Strom — who is handing the reins to Simon after 36 years with the congregation — to Ron and Marcia Abraham, founding members of Shir Ami, to Joshua McCoy, president, to Daniel Levy, the president of Shafty, the synagogue’s youth group, to Noah Haines, the congregation’s Bar Mitzvah boy for that week and, finally, to Simon.
“It was symbolic of the past, present and future,” said Nancy Siderits, immediate past president. “It was a really great night.”
It was a way to appreciate the history of the synagogue, she said, and to explore the many ways to “keep the synagogue vibrant into the future.”
Consul General of Israel to the Mid-Atlantic Region Yaron Sideman spoke to the 400-person crowd at the service, as did Strom, Mayor Charles Swartz III, Pa. State Rep. Steve Santarsiero (D-31), Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia President Bud Newman and CEO Naomi Adler, and Rabbi Richard Birnholz, senior rabbi at Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, Fla., where Simon served for eight years before becoming part of Shir Ami.
“This was a moving and uplifting experience,” said Shir Ami president Joshua McCoy of the service and passing the Torah from “generation to generation.”
McCoy, who started his presidential term in May, said at the gala that the weekend celebrating Simon was a milestone and an “emotional” experience.
“It’s nice to see the synagogue come to this point in its life,” he said.
After a Havdalah service and Ha’Motzi led by the clergy, a DJ and emcee invited the 284 guests in attendance to the dance floor, transforming the space into a Bar/Bat Mitzvah-esque atmosphere. A few brave guests (some in heels, no less) joined the emcee on the dance floor for the “Cupid Shuffle” and the party took off from there. All that was missing was a game of “Coke or Pepsi.”
Those not dancing joined in conversation at tables, enjoying plates of salmon cakes and roasted vegetables, and many guests accessorized with glasses of wine.
In between taking photos and talking with everyone, Simon was enjoying the night with his family and the rest of the Shir Ami community.
It was “amazing” for him, he said, to have “so many areas of my life coming together to celebrate [a] new beginning.”
The service and his installation is just one moment for the synagogue, he said, and it’s important for the congregants to “appreciate the moments that made this one possible.”
“I think they’re very proud of what they have — as they should be — and are excited to see what it can turn into,” he said.
He is excited to get to know all of the members of the congregation and build relationships with everyone, which includes being there for them in times of joy and of need. He called that one of biggest responsibilities as a rabbi, but also “one of the greatest honors.”
“The synagogue does not belong to its rabbi,” he said. “It belongs to its members.”
The founding members of the synagogue couldn’t agree more.
Ron and Marcia Abraham started what became Shir Ami with a group of 10 families in their living room in 1976.
The Torah they originally purchased stayed on the top shelf of their bedroom closet when it wasn’t being used for services, which were led by Rabbi Strom starting in 1979.
The synagogue was built with “no money — and a lot of love,” Ron Abraham said.
It started as the Bucks County Jewish Congregation and was housed in the George School — a Quaker school — for a period of time.
“It’s very thrilling,” he said of seeing the congregation become what it is today. The couple’s three children were all Bar and Bat Mitzvahed and confirmed there.
“It’s been a major source of Judaism in Bucks County — now we’re lucky to have a new rabbi to bring us into the next phase.”
The pair started the shul to fill a gap. There were synagogues in Doylestown and Levittown and other surrounding areas, but nothing in the immediate Richboro area, he recalled.
“I thought this was the center of Bucks County. It’s a hub,” he said.
He said the synagogue owes the amount of energy it has to its continued success, and to programming that reaches every level of Judaism.
He, a physician, and Marcia, who reads Torah every Yom Kippur and is a retired Spanish and French teacher from the Council Rock school district, were honored at the service during the Torah passing.
“It symbolized continuity of generations,” he said.
It was “amazing” to see how many people were at the gala compared to the 10 families the synagogue started from, Marcia Abraham said.
“I think the transition will add a different flavor, different vigor, and hopefully encourage another 35 years of Jewish life at Shir Ami,” Ron Abraham said.
“I think it’s wonderful,” said Hope Ettinger, from Langhorne, of the gala. ‘“I’m thrilled to see a lot of faces I don’t recognize, which means we reached people who don’t always come to Friday night services.”
Ettinger was a board member from 2009 to 2013, and said the service Friday night for Simon was “warm and inclusive.”
“It confirmed we made the right choice,” she said.
Joan Dossick has been a member of Shir Ami for about 20 years. She said she was “devastated” when she learned Strom was leaving.
“It was breaking my heart,” she said, “but Rabbi Simon is just wonderful. The warmth and love at Shir Ami is not going to change. It might even get bigger.”
She believes that Simon will bring more youth to the congregation, as well, moving forward.
For many in past leadership roles at the synagogue, the service and gala were a way of looking forward to the next generation.
“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” said Phyllis Doroshow with a smile, recalling her time as president of the synagogue from 1998 to 2000.
In her time, she saw a period of growth for the synagogue, which included building new additions, such as a mikvah. She has stayed involved with the synagogue, including singing in its choir.
She echoed Dossick’s sentiments about Simon, whom she also called “wonderful.”“There’s an air of excitement in the synagogue that’s going to continue to grow.”
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