It’s a well-known fact, repeated often in the Jewish Exponent, that synagogue attendance and membership are declining. But on the High Holidays, even many unaffiliated Jews feel a need to repent. That is why local synagogues still offer options for nonmembers.
If you are Jewish, unaffiliated and living in the Philadelphia area, below are some options for you. But bear in mind that in 2020s America, the synagogues that offer this also need to take security measures.
Be prepared to contact the office or fill out a form beforehand to let synagogue leaders know you are coming. Also be prepared to see armed guards and greeters outside of buildings as you walk in. And if you attend a service virtually, do not expect it to be interactive. Zoom bombers have hit too many area synagogues for comfort in recent years.
These are just the realities that Jewish institutions are dealing with today, according to shul leaders. On that note, here’s the list, noting that there may be other options not included below.
B’nai Abraham Chabad
527 Lombard St.
In-person but must register: phillyshul.com/highholidays2022/
Jewish Children’s Folkshul (Nondenominational)
8000 Cherokee St.
In-person and Zoom but must register: folkshul.org/
Congregation Rodeph Shalom (Reform)
615 N. Broad St.
Must register for livestream: tfaforms.com/5007553
Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel (Orthodox)
2015 S. Fourth St.
“Free and all are welcome”: thelittleshul.org/
South Philadelphia Shtiebel (Orthodox)
1321 S. Juniper St.
Free but must register: southphiladelphiashtiebel.breezechms.com/form/426f12
Aish Chaim (Orthodox)
345 Montgomery Ave., Bala Cynwyd
In-person but must register: form.jotform.com/212286921202145
Beth Chaim Reform Congregation
389 Conestoga Road, Malvern
In-person and virtual but must register: bethchaimreformcongregation.shulcloud.com/form/2022-high-holiday-registration-for-nonmembers.html
Bensalem Jewish Outreach Center (Nondenominational)
2446 Bristol Road, Bensalem
In-person but must register: bensalemoutreach.org/events/342/high-holiday39s-explanatory-services/
Kesher Israel Congregation (Nondenominational)
1000 Pottstown Pike, West Chester
In-person but must register: kesher-israel.org/worship/high-holiday-information/
Congregation Or Shalom (Conservative)
835 Darby Paoli Road, Berwyn
Zoom but must register: orshalom.com/holy-days-services-detail/
Temple Sholom in Broomall (Reform)
55 Church Lane, Broomall
Synagogue leaders at several of these places spoke of a balance this High Holiday season. They want to uphold the role of a shul as “a place where any Jew should walk in and pray,” as Rabbi Binyomin Davis of Aish Chaim put it. But they also understand the need to protect their members.
Davis’ congregation faced an intruder situation at an outdoor Yom Kippur service on the Main Line last fall. Luckily, Aish Chaim’s security team stopped the woman before she could enter. But it underscored the point.
The Bala Cynwyd congregation will be back indoors this year as COVID becomes less of a threat. While the indoor space should offer additional protection, it is no excuse to ease up, according to Davis. He is bringing on the same security team, Protexia, to monitor this year’s proceedings. This policy is no different from what Aish Chaim does every week at Shabbat services, too.
“It’s always a possibility, and it is a concern,” the rabbi said. “We aren’t frisking people yet and making them go through a security barrier. I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Congregation Shivtei Yeshuron Ezras Israel is taking a similar approach. As attendees walk into services, they will see an armed guard in plain clothes and a greeter from the synagogue. The greeter, likely a congregant or a member of the synagogue’s board, will ask nonmembers questions as they walk in and then speak to them for a few minutes. The goal, according to shul President Richard Sisman, is to get a feel for whether “they are legitimate or not.”
“The High Holidays are more likely to attract people we aren’t familiar with,” he added.
An in-person event is going to need more security than a virtual one. So at Temple Sholom in Broomall, leaders are balancing openness with safety by opening up their digital space.
Only a livestream will be available to nonmembers. It will be secure, according to temple Executive Director Jeff Green, because people will not be able to engage during the service. A livestream is not a Zoom, Green explained. Attendees cannot just jump in and write what they want on the screen.
“In the virtual space that we’re in, the worst that’s going to happen is someone’s going to post something obnoxious on our Facebook page, and then we’ll just take it down,” the executive director said.
At the same time, Jews who want a service will be able to find one. With the livestream, no one will be limited by geography or a health condition or any other factor, Green said. JE