Rabbi Yehoshua Yeamans was just 29 when he was offered the big job at B’nai Israel Ohev Zedek (BIOZ) in Rhawnhurst: head rabbi, with a flock all his own.
The Scarsdale native was living in Edmonton, Alberta, working as an assistant rabbi and as the head of the local NCSY chapter, with his wife, Sarah, and their children. His father-in-law, Rabbi Dovid Wachs (founding director of the Philadelphia Etz Chaim), told him about an opening at an area synagogue with a dwindling population. Was he interested?
Four years later, BIOZ has added nearly 30 young families, with a growing preschool to boot. After a long period of uncertainty, there’s optimism in the Rhawnhurst community that young Jewish life will persist. And if you ask congregants at BIOZ, they’ll tell you: Yeamans has been one of the key forces in reinvigorating the area.
“The warmth of the rabbi and his concern for his congregation is tremendous, and it makes you want to involve yourself and take an active part of the congregation,” said Jay Press, a longtime member and former synagogue president.
“We’ve started to see real growth in the community over the last couple of years,” Yeamans said. “There’s a real sense of optimism in the community that this is a place that will continue to grow.”
Yeamans wasn’t always sure he wanted to be a rabbi, though the Jewish professional world was already on his radar; he even went so far as to get an MBA from Loyola University Maryland in preparation. But he felt called to the rabbinate, and ended up attending Ner Israel in Baltimore. He loved it there.
“Amazing faculty, amazing rabbis,” he said. “I learned a lot there. It really developed me as a person.”
Perhaps the most important takeaway from his time in Baltimore was what he learned with Rabbi Moshe Hauer of B’nei Jacob Shaarei Zion. Practical rabbinics, Yeamans said, the day to day of being a rabbi, was the focus of their conversations, and what motivates him to this day.
“It’s all about relationships,” he said. “It’s such a blessing to be able to get to be able to get to know well a lot of people and be able to help them and live with them as they navigate their lives and they raise their families, not only experiencing and living with them their moments of challenge and their moments of triumph, but on a day-to-day basis to be able to interact with them.”
Mikki Rosenberg, 23, grew up in BIOZ, and still attends Minchah and Ma’ariv services on Fridays when he can make it over from Drexel University. His initial impression of Yeamans — “besides how tall he was,” he said — was “how comfortable he made everyone feel.”
“Growing up there was just a core of us,” Rosenberg said, “and as we aged, the number of children diminished as we moved away or went to school in different cities. Seeing the number of strollers lining our hallways or outside the shul makes me smile each time I walk past them.”
Chavi Schwartzbaum is the owner of a few of those strollers.
She and her husband, along with their three young children, have been full members of the synagogue for about two years, after a stint as associate members. Today, her husband is the congregation’s president, and the synagogue’s focus on fostering productive environments for her children has been meaningful for her.
“I really like that focus on the youth and giving them place,” she said. “The rabbi has a very rich focus on creating a warm community and a welcoming community.” Her children, she said, now have a place at the synagogue “where they weren’t being destructive or just running wild.”
One of Yeamans’ strengths, Press said, is his ability to market the synagogue to young families. A few years ago, a long-tenured BIOZ congregant passed away and left a grant to the synagogue earmarked to provide subsidies to young families moving to the area, the only stipulation being that those receiving the subsidy were obligated to host a welcome Shabbat dinner once they arrived.
Those who elected to move there and receive the subsidy, Press said, were as captivated by the rabbi as they were by the prospect of a few dollars in their pocket. His own niece, Press said, partially made her decision to move to the area based on what she’d heard about Yeamans.
Long-dormant classes have been revived; though falafel and potato kugel are enticing, it takes more to lure 30 to 50 men for “Torah Night Tuesday” each week, led by a rotating cast of rabbis that break the group into smaller sections for more intimate discussions.
Holiday and Shabbat mornings now have dedicated services for mothers and their young children, away from the main service. A few times per month, there’s now a teen minyan designed to let younger congregants learn how to lead.
And in addition to the influx of new families, older congregants feel reinvigorated in their commitment.
“I believe all of these changes are a direct result of Rabbi Yeamans’ effort,” Rosenberg said.
Yeamans downplayed much of the praise directed his way. He cites his congregants’ deep commitment to the synagogue. There’s also, he said, the years of institutional trust built up by the rabbi who preceded him, Aharon Felder, a world-renowned scholar who served for decades at BIOZ.
“To be able to step in those shoes was incredibly, incredibly humbling,” he said.
His hope, said Yeamans, is that people see what he sees in Rhawnhurst: an affordable, well-placed community with a blooming sense of the future for the first time in a while.
“People are really believing in the long-term future of this community,” he said.