Lower Merion Synagogue a ‘Huge Extended Family’

Purim at Lower Merion Synagogue in 2022 (Photo by Nachi Troodler)

It’s Friday night in Bala Cynwyd. The sun is setting. Work is ending for the week.

Jewish families within a mile or two of Old Lancaster Road open their doors and start walking to Lower Merion Synagogue. When they get to the Orthodox shul, they open the door and walk in.

“And you find your family,” said Lori Salkin, a Merion Station resident and an LMS member for about a decade now.

Salkin does this with her husband and four children every Friday, as do many congregants from a community that includes more than 450 families. LMS holds services, youth programs and meals throughout the 25-hour Sabbath period, and the “overwhelming majority” of members take part to some degree, according to the synagogue’s programming and communications director Nachi Troodler.

The shul that opened in 1954 with five families and no building is now the largest Orthodox synagogue in Pennsylvania, per its website. It grew to 50 families by 1967 and, despite a modern trend of declining synagogue membership, never stopped growing over the decades.

Rabbi Emeritus Abraham A. Levene took over in 1967 and led LMS until 2008, overseeing multiple expansions of the community’s building at 123 Old Lancaster Road. Rabbi Avraham J. Shmidman replaced Levene upon the latter’s retirement and remains the spiritual leader. LMS’ history section on its website credits Shmidman with expanding “minyanim and programming” and adding a mikvah.

Plus, for the first time in its history, LMS hired an assistant rabbi.

“As we continue growing, it’s helpful to have another person who’s able to lend a hand and become an integral part of the fabric of our community,” said Troodler, a Bala Cynwyd resident who has been a member for seven years.

During a typical summer Sabbath, LMS hosts two Friday night minyans and then four more services on Saturday morning between 7:15 and 9:15. After Shabbat morning services, congregants make their way to a kiddush in the social hall and “linger for quite some time,” Troodler said.

“They talk to their friends; they talk to the rabbi. They want to be there, and they enjoy it,” he added.

Young congregants enjoy a Purim celebration at Lower Merion Synagogue. (Photo by Nachi Troodler)

Then, once afternoon services begin, many of those same people walk back to the synagogue for the second time that day or since the previous night. It does not matter if they have to walk more than a mile multiple times in 25 hours. They will do it to come back for afternoon or evening prayer sessions.

As Troodler put it, there’s a lot going on. And while not everyone comes to every Shabbat service or activity, the sanctuary is full week in, week out, regardless of the season. During some of the adult proceedings in the sanctuary, kids go off for their own minyans, Torah readings and discussions about the week’s parsha.

“That’s how they learn to be leaders in their own communities one day,” Troodler explained.

LMS does not have a preschool, a religious school or a bar and bat mitzvah program, though families can celebrate their children’s bar and bat mitzvahs at the synagogue. Its weekly programming consists of a Talmud discussion group, a speaker series and social events like summer barbecues, among other activities. On holidays, members come together for symbolic exercises like building and decorating the Sukkah for Sukkot.

Just like on the Sabbath, they go to their synagogue because they want to be there. Salkin said it’s this “little pocket of Orthodox Jews who are extremely devoted to their Orthodoxy, and looking for a place to call home and family.”

Josh Katz, a Merion Station resident and an LMS member since 2012, described it as “a second home.” Katz belongs to the synagogue with his wife and four kids. He called it a place where they all feel comfortable.

“It’s a part of who we are, what we do as a family,” he said.

A family learning activity during Motzei Shabbat on a Saturday night at Lower Merion Synagogue in November of 2021. (Photo by Nachi Troodler)

Congregants feel this connection to 123 Old Lancaster Road, but really they feel it to each other. During the pandemic in 2020, when they could not gather in the sanctuary on Friday night and Saturday, they made their own.

It was in each other’s backyards, where they spent Shabbat after Shabbat, even when winter hit and the weather got cold. They would just be sitting, talking and “clinging to each other,” Salkin said.

On a recent camp day in early August, Salkin’s son came home complaining that a soccer ball had hit him in the forehead. The mother called two or three doctors from the congregation. Within a few minutes, the mother and son were sitting in one’s driveway.

“We’re just a huge extended family,” she said. JE

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