Old York Road Temple-Beth Am Celebrates 75th Anniversary

Old York Road Temple-Beth Am challah ladies (Courtesy of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am)

Born right after World War II in 1947, just as Reform Judaism in the United States was growing into its modern, suburban form, Old York Road Temple-Beth Am came of age with the times.

It started as “a small but dedicated group of families” who held High Holiday services at the Abington YMCA, according to the synagogue’s history section on its website. But the congregation bought its property on Old York Road in 1950 and grew to include 1,000 households by the 2000s.

Rabbis came and rabbis stayed. First, Harold Waintrup from 1951 to 1992, and then Robert Leib from 1989 to the present day.

Members came, and they stayed, too. Mark Lopatin, 65, joined in 1994 and said simply, “The synagogue is so homey.”

Larry Kane, the locally famous news anchor, arrived at the temple in 1977 and called it “a very different kind of place.”

“I can tell you there’s just a sense of belonging and friendship,” Kane added.

The newsman, now 79, was speaking in the present tense when he said that. By all accounts, Old York Road Temple-Beth Am is still a place where members want to stay.

And on Nov. 12, they may just stay all night. That Saturday, the community will celebrate its 75th anniversary with a cocktail hour, dinner, dance and silent auction. But mainly, congregants are going to dance.

“Am I going to dance? I intend to,” said Lopatin, who is chairing the gala with his wife Suzan.

Leib will also let go and cut a rug, he claims. But not until he lives up to his role and puts the entire evening into perspective first.

“There’s a sense of continuity and stability,” he said. “That feeling of Beth Am really being their second home.”

Today, that feeling persists, but it is also fading as the congregation shrinks. Old York Road Temple-Beth Am is not immune from the illness infecting all Philadelphia area synagogues in 2022 — the illness of declining faith.

Rabbi Leib acknowledged that the community still needs to update the congregant number, more than 650, listed in the history section on its website. The real figure is down to more like 550 households.

As the rabbi said, more than 500 households is “nothing to scoff at.” But it’s also nearly a 50% decline in less than two decades.

Leib, though, refused to call the trend a decline. Instead, he labeled it a “generational demographic slump.” He does not necessarily believe that Old York Road Temple-Beth Am will become a 1,000-household congregation again.

But he does believe it will “survive.”

“I’m not prepared to accept that the proverbial writing is on the wall,” Leib said.

The temple offered 250 tickets to the 75th-anniversary celebration to the community, and the event sold out quickly. Lopatin said the gala has already raised between $135,000 and $140,000, with a silent auction still to go. All proceeds will go toward the future of the synagogue.

The congregation, according to Leib, includes “a substantial number” of three-generation families and even a few four-generation families. Lopatin and Kane stayed involved with their wives long after their children finished their preschool and Jewish educations.

As a newsman, Kane is used to putting things into perspective. He said the congregation’s staying power is rooted in a partnership between devoted members and charismatic leaders.

Young congregants celebrate the Jewish new year at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am. (Courtesy of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am)

Congregants are friendly to each other; you feel at home as soon as you walk in; and you do not just walk in on the High Holidays. And Rabbi Waintrup, Kane explained, “was a giant.” He could make connections with kids and adults. He used to tell the news anchor that he watched him “religiously.” The old rabbi’s sermons were also “high-level” and “motivated by the times of the day.”

Kane met Leib for the first time at a Sunday morning breakfast in 1989. He called the moment exciting because he noticed a lot of the same qualities in the younger man, just with a South African accent. Leib immigrated to the United States after conscientiously objecting to military service in his home country. He did not want to support South Africa’s apartheid regime.

“You reach a point in life where you realize the value of people of honesty, integrity, quality, people who care about others,” Kane said. “The two of these men were into their work and sensitive and caring.”

Leib is committed to keeping the temple open and thriving. He says his congregants are, too.

“By virtue of being an open, welcoming and inclusive Jewish community to all,” he said. “Through sheer grit and determination to make sure that at all costs our doors remain open.” JE

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