Congregation Or Ami Remains the Heart of Jewish Lafayette Hill

A fun event at Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill (Courtesy of Rabbi Glenn Ettman)

The new sanctuary at Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill does not look big. It’s half of a room, with a sanctuary on one side, a divider in the middle and a social hall on the other side. The individual seats, which replaced the pews during a renovation last year, and the lowered stage, which also was a part of that project, make the sanctuary look more like a community meeting room than a worship space. It’s a more intimate sanctuary befitting a synagogue that has lost more than 100 members over the past six years.

But if you look closely, and especially if you count the chairs, you can see that Or Ami remains a sizable congregation. The seats add up to almost 200. The membership list still includes between 200 and 225 families. And unlike in pre-COVID times, when that list included people who were no longer shul regulars, it is filled with residents who walk through the doors off Ridge Pike and participate in synagogue life.

Or Ami describes itself on its website as “the center of Jewish life in the Lafayette Hill area.” In a recent conversation, Rabbi Glenn Ettman updated the line.

“We’re the heart of the Jewish community here in Lafayette Hill,” he said.

Ettman, 46, arrived at Or Ami in July 2016 with an interim label. But he had that tag dropped in February 2017 and has called Lafayette Hill home ever since. He makes it his mission not so much to grow the community but to deepen it. He reaches out to members on their birthdays and calls them at least twice a year.

“My goal is to get to know everybody,” he said.

“All of those things help to keep people connected,” added Scott Allen, the synagogue’s executive director.

A Chanukah gathering at Congregation Or Ami (Courtesy of Mark Wolfheimer)

And people are connected.

A group called the Mitzvah Core helps congregants deal with difficult situations. During Passover, a member called the synagogue “needing substantial help getting Passover food,” Allen said. Within four hours, another member volunteered to buy food and deliver it to the woman. It was delivered the following day.

Once a month, and sometimes once a week, congregants volunteer at the Norristown Food Bank. Allen said younger families in particular are taking to this activity. And when someone from Or Ami dies, members mobilize to help the family set up the shiva, buy the food and clean up.

“We view our community as a family,” Rabbi Ettman said.

That must be part of the reason why young families are joining. Or Ami’s Early Childhood Education Center enrollment is 93 kids. Its religious school student body consists of 86 children and teenagers.

The new sanctuary inside Congregation Or Ami (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

Allison Russell, 36, joined four years ago with her husband and young daughter because she wanted to send her daughter to a Jewish preschool. The family lived in neighboring Conshohocken, so Or Ami was the closest option. Russell met with Michelle Ruder, the director of the ECE Center, and “felt right at home,” she said. The feeling hasn’t gone away. Russell’s older daughter is now in kindergarten and her younger one is in nursery school.

“They both love going into the building,” she said.

Jessica Roomberg, 35, grew up at Or Ami and attended preschool and had a bat mitzvah. She rejoined with her family in 2017 because she had heard from friends with older kids that the shul still had a great ECE Center.

“As a parent, you want your kids to feel taken care of and safe and loved. I’ve definitely felt that,” she said.

The Roombergs have two kids, son Liam and daughter Meadow, in school at Or Ami. But their oldest, a daughter named Mila, died in 2019 due to a rare vascular manifestation of a genetic disorder, Neurofibromatosis Type 1. Every year on Mila’s yahrzeit, the family attends a service at Or Ami, and Ettman tries to include something in honor of her, like a song. Mila’s Magical Garden now sits by the playground in the backyard of the synagogue’s property. Children use it to learn about nature.

Roomberg “wasn’t much of a believer in God” after her daughter died. Today, “God and I are working on things,” she said. She questions, but she tries to keep the faith. Her faith in the synagogue, though, is unwavering.

“The community was there as much as they could be. It did feel like a safe place,” Roomberg said. “The rabbi always keeps Mila in mind. He definitely keeps the congregants’ needs in mind.”

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