Beit Harambam United in Times of Adversity

A group of young Israeli men in tallitot are gathered around a Torah reading.
An increasing number of young members has made Beit Harambam text study classes an opportunity to build friendships. | Courtesy of Moshe Asiag

Congregation Beit Harambam has never had any trouble gathering a minyan for prayers three times a day.

Whenever congregant Moshe Asiag has attended shul — six days a week, three times a day — he’s been joined by 30-40 other men, far exceeding the minimum 10 needed to pray.

Congregants’ loyalty to Beit Harambam and each other is unwavering.

When an arson burned down the Verree Road synagogue in 2000, upon finding their building destroyed early Saturday morning, Beit Harambam members opted to daven outside, completing their Shabbat service after rescuing their sefer Torah and prayer books.

Beit Harambam president Yaacov Avraham insists that there is nothing unique about his synagogue community, but the demographics tell a different story.

One of few area Sephardic synagogues, Beit Harambam is primarily home to Israeli expatriates. While Hebrew is often heard in American synagogues during prayer, it’s not often the common tongue during post-Shabbat schmoozing. At Beit Harambam, it’s the norm.

“It’s like a big Israeli family,” Rabbi Moshe Arbiv said.

Founded in 1978 by Moroccan-born Rabbi Amiram Gabay — now retired — Beit Harambam was originally a meeting space in Gabay’s basement in his Rhawnhurst home. The space was home to Sephardic and Mizrahi Orthodox Jews from Morocco, Iraq and Libya, as well as its large Israeli population.

In the next decade, the synagogue expanded and moved to its humble space on Verree Road, a converted house that blends in with the residential area there. The community multiplied to 300 before the May 2000 fire.

Though police investigations were never conclusive about the motives behind the fire, synagogue leadership was certain that the action was a hate crime.

“This is pure antisemitism,” Avraham said.

Avraham, who has been synagogue president for the past 20 years and replaced the founding rabbi’s son Eli Gabay, was one of the congregants who arrived at the synagogue shortly after authorities put out the fire.

“We stood outside. We were just in shock,” Avraham said.

Firefighters were able to rescue the synagogue’s Torahs and salvage some prayer books, but other texts and more than 50 tallitot were destroyed.

Asiag, who’s been a Beit Harambam member for seven years, sometimes uses a prayer book with burn marks or singed edges.

Moshe Asiag is an Israeli man wearing a blue button up shirt standing next to an older white man outside holding plates of food.
Moshe Asiag (left) at an outdoor Beit Harambam event

Though the fire remains a dark spot in the synagogue’s history, it provided a way for the synagogue to expand to accommodate its ballooning membership.

With funding help from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, Jewish Community Relations Council, Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia and American Jewish Congress, Beit Harambam was able to rebuild its original space, as well as create an expansion with a larger prayer space and social hall. The project was completed in 2011.

Beit Harambam now offers Torah study classes for men, Tehillim study groups for women and an informal gemach — loan-free social service to members who may need financial help — as well as raucous holiday parties, according to Asiag. Before COVID, the shul held monthly food drives.

Though many of the congregants range from ages 45-60, Asiag said, there are plenty of younger men attending minyans and text study groups as well.

Asiag, 25, has two Israeli parents and speaks fluent Hebrew. He has a wife and three young children, two of whom began attending shul with him.

Many members, like Asiag, have young families and work similar jobs. Going to shul, where there are 90 attendees for Shabbat services and 200-300 attendees for holidays, sometimes provides the only social encounters outside of family that young members have during the week.

“If you have a synagogue that’s all different kinds of people, you just don’t intervene with everybody,” Asiag said. “But here, we’re all Israeli; we’re all the same. If you’re all on the same page, everybody gets along together.”

While close camaraderie among those with similar backgrounds is an asset of Beit Harambam for its congregants, its handful of Ashkenazi and Russian members prove that it’s a space that can be a spiritual home for anyone.

“Everybody’s welcome to pray with us. We don’t judge people if they’re religious or not. It’s an open synagogue for everybody,” Avraham said. “We just hope that we will grow more and more…The more people we have, that’s going to be a blessing for the synagogue.”

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