As the month of Elul continues, the Lubavitch of Yardley looks ahead to a busy start of the new Jewish year.
A Rosh Hashanah Street Fair is set for Sept. 10. The High Holidays begin less than a week later. A Sukkot dinner under the stars will follow just days after the breaking of the fast. And then a Simchat Torah celebration and meal will mark the end of the yearly cycle of Torah readings and the beginning of a new one for 5784.
Rabbi Zalman Blecher and Rebbetzin Chaya Blecher arrived in Yardley in the secular year of 2015. Like other leading couples in the Chabad movement, they came to spread the wisdom of the Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 20th-century rabbi who preached an Orthodox commitment to Jewish law combined with a Reform openness to Jews from all backgrounds.
They wanted to offer the Jews of lower Bucks County whatever they needed. And going into a new year, they feel like they are doing that.
“We are in a healthy trajectory of growth that we were experiencing even before COVID,” Rabbi Blecher said.
During their first High Holiday season in Yardley, the couple welcomed about 90 people for services, according to the rabbi. Last year, that number was closer to 180. The Blechers also had trouble attracting a minyan to Shabbat services after they first moved. Today, between 30 and 50 people show up each week. Back then, the rebbetzin’s challah bakes were in her kitchen with five or six other women. Now, they need to be in a public location because 40-60 women attend.
Jews come from Yardley, Langhorne, Newtown, Washington Crossing, Levittown and Holland. All over lower Bucks. The rabbi said that growth has increased in the last two years.
“I kind of call it a post-COVID boom,” he added. “People are looking post-pandemic. Maybe they now value community and friendship and faith more.”
Blecher says he measures growth in two ways: quantity and quality. The former keeps the synagogue afloat. But it’s the latter that measures its true impact.
“You could have 1,000 people at a Rosh Hashanah service, but if they are leaving the service and not growing in their faith and in their Judaism, what’s it for?” Blecher asked. “You want them to walk away inspired. Maybe now they’ll incorporate Shabbat into their family life.”
There’s the older couple in their 70s that never had a Jewish wedding because they lived in the Soviet Union, according to Blecher. But they started attending classes at the Lubavitch and learned about the importance of a Jewish wedding. So, they decided to finally have one under a huppah last summer.
There’s the close friend of the Blechers who survived a head-on collision and started thinking about his mortality. He had coffee with the rabbi to discuss. Then he came to the Lubavitch to pray with him. After a while, the man started attending Shabbat services every week.
There was also the student from the nearby Abrams Hebrew Academy who needed help studying for his bar mitzvah. He got the necessary tutelage from Rabbi Blecher. Then his parents, who had no formal Jewish education during their childhoods in the Soviet Union and Ukraine, respectively, came to their first Passover seder and began coming for Shabbat services.
“We’re seeing people take small steps,” the rabbi said. “Every little bit of faith people incorporate into their life means the world to God.”
The Lubavitch rents its space on Yardley Newtown Road. But with its recent growth, the rabbi and rebbetzin are trying to build a “permanent Jewish center” in lower Bucks County, Blecher said.
They are in the process of planning the capital campaign. The rabbi expects the goal to be between $6 and $8 million.
Blecher is 34 and from Australia. But over the past decade, he believes he has found his Jewish home. The Lubavitch of Bucks County started in Yardley 30 years ago but moved to Newtown. At the same time, Yardley and lower Bucks have a “tremendous Jewish population,” Blecher said.
“There really is a need for a dedicated rabbi and rebbetzin to have an independent Chabad center in the Yardley community,” he added. “So that’s what we’ve been doing since 2015 as an affiliate of the Lubavitch of Bucks County.”
And that’s what they will continue to do as another Jewish year begins.