Shaare Shamayim and Ner Zedek Join Together in ‘Marriage’

Under the chuppah during the wedding of Congregations of Shaare Shamayim and Congregations of Ner Zedek. | Photo by Eugene Hurwitz

It was a beautiful day for a wedding.

The sun was shining early on June 4 as congregants, leaders and clergy from Congregations of Shaare Shamayim and Congregations of Ner Zedek marched down Verree Road, holding Torahs and dancing in circles along to choruses of “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem” and “Hava Nagila.”

The Torahs belonged to Congregations of Ner Zedek and were passed to Shaare Shamayim leaders and members as part of a formal unification, completing a merger that was finalized at the end of 2016.

Now all they had to do was say, “I do.”

After the procession, guests shuffled into the main sanctuary for a wedding — though this time, there was no designated bride or groom side.

Lois Cleghorn and Carol Sokolow made their way into the synagogue and reflected on the union of the Conservative congregations — both literally and figuratively with the wedding ceremony.

Cleghorn had belonged to Adath Zion Congregation, which merged with what was then Ner Zedek-Ezrath Israel-Beth Uziel in 2008. (It became Congregations of Ner Zedek after that merger.) Sokolow has belonged to Shaare Shamayim for about three years.

Sokolow is optimistic about the future of the synagogue and hopes the merger will bring about “prosperity and blooming.”

“We hope it lasts forever,” Cleghorn added.

While there was no formal ketubah signing, the wedding ceremony featured some of the usual trappings, including wine.

On the bimah, speakers and clergy stood under a chuppah to welcome guests and share their thoughts about the relationship between the synagogues, including an address by keynote speaker Rabbi Jay Kornsgold of Beth El Synagogue in East Windsor, whose father, Morris Kornsgold, was a past president of Adath Zion and Ner Zedek.

“I feel great, what can I tell you?” Morris Kornsgold said with a wide smile. “It’s a yontif, it’s a holiday to us. … I hope this synagogue is going to grow and continue to grow.”

Leaders from Congregations of Shaare Shamayim and Congregations of Ner Zedek hold the Torahs as they prepare to march down Verree Road.

Shaare Shamayim President Fran Gabriel had the honors of breaking the glass during the ceremony.

“I love the symbolic nature here because we are two congregations that appear to be perfect together,” she said afterward.

“We’re both groups of people who were raised in the kitchens of the synagogue. Our families grew up with synagogue as our community.”

She previously attended Congregation Beth Emeth, which merged with Shaare Shamayim about six years ago. She noted her parents’ dedication to the synagogue when she was growing up is not dissimilar from that of Ner Zedek’s congregants.

Both synagogues have been host to many mergers — as evidenced by the 13 congregations that have merged at times with both Ner Zedek and Shaare Shamayim listed on the wedding program — and Gabriel pointed to the diversity that brings to each congregation.

“We are a culture of people from many other synagogues and many other places,” Gabriel said, “each bringing their memories and their traditions here.”

Among the memories and traditions brought to Shaare Shamayim as a result of the merger are about 4,500 memorial plaques that volunteers helped remove and reassemble. A striking Holocaust memorial with three distinct artworks mounted on a dark blue wall and a cobblestone floor is now housed in the main lobby where the gift shop was. The ark in the Karff Sanctuary was also reassembled from Ner Zedek, and its history dates back more than 100 years.

In this way, the heritage of Ner Zedek is preserved and on display for all congregants to see.

For some, preserving that heritage is keenly important as the dynamic of the area changes.

“It signifies that the heritage of the previous synagogues can continue by being part of this,” said Sylvan Kesilman of the merger. He served as past president of Adath Zion before it merged with Ner Zedek, where he became co-president and served on the merger committee.

“It’s good there’s still an opportunity left to have a synagogue in Northeast Philadelphia,” he added, “because there’s been so much change in the population and so many of the synagogues have closed.

“So [Shaare Shamayim] is like the one bastion of what’s left. We hope we’ll be here for a long time.”

The merger presented to Ner Zedek congregants a welcoming new home.

“It means a comfortable place to come where we feel welcome, and the people are most gracious,” noted Rita Malenbaum, as she enjoyed a breakfast reception of bagels, whitefish and other goods.

Don Agriss’ father, Leon, was the first president of Temple Brith Kodesh 63 years ago, Agriss said, which then merged with Boulevard Park Congregation to form Ner Zedek Congregation, making Leon Agriss its first president.

Don Agriss grew up with Ner Zedek, including having his Bar Mitzvah there on a day that it snowed 2 feet. He expressed optimism for the future.

“I just hope that we won’t see Shaare Shamayim close for many years, of course,” he said, “and I’m just hoping that we can all join together in prayer, in community and all the future happy occasions that hopefully will occur.”

Congregants from both shuls march down Verree Road. | Eugene Hurwitz

For merger committee chairperson and past Shaare Shamayim president Tobi D. Levin, the merger represents growth.

“We’re branching out our family. We’re expanding our base by adding more to our community,” she said. “There’s not a lot of Jewish people moving into the Northeast, and if we can be the welcoming synagogue for the ones that still want to be here and have a home in the Northeast community, we’re it.”

About 125 families from Ner Zedek came over with the merger, making Shaare Shamayim’s total about 560, per Executive Director Jacques Lurie.

“There’s been a history of connection between the two congregations,” Lurie noted. “When Ner Zedek was having a problem with its daily minyan, we sent a group down there to help make minyan for them. So there’s been a relationship. And, of course, there’s the relationship of the neighborhood beyond anything else.”

With each synagogue joining forces with others, there was a lot of history that needed attention, including memorial plaques that have survived various congregations.

“In any of the synagogues that have come to us, the first question is always, ‘Will you be willing to display our plaques, and will they be displayed appropriately?’” he said. “And we feel as though our placement by putting them in the sanctuaries was the most appropriate place.”

An electronic memorial board with the names of every person who has a plaque is also in the works, Levin said, which will allow users to easily find the plaque of their loved one accompanied by a picture and bio and locate it within the synagogue. It will also scroll through the yahrzeits of that week.

As there are plaques from many congregations, it represents more than just the history of the synagogue.

“It really is a history of the neighborhood,” Lurie said, “and that’s one of the reasons I look forward to the electronic board because that’s something we can do with the kids. We can look up people, we can put in histories, we can work with older people to remember their histories and it will remain there forever.”

He is optimistic about the future of the synagogue and noted the relationship between the synagogues works because of shared values.

“They are people who grew up with a synagogue as the centrality of their lives,” he said. “They have brought Torah readers, people who are capable of leading, they have brought people who are working in the kitchen, people who are sitting on our board — it has just been an amazing addition for the shul.”

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