Shir Ami a Hub for Reform Jewish Life


When it opened in 1999, Shir Ami’s community mikveh became just the second of its kind at a Reform synagogue in the United States.

Today there are a few more, but the Newtown temple continues to offer the only mikveh at a Reform shul in the Philadelphia area. As Rabbi Charles “Chuck” Briskin explained, the ritual purification bath draws Jews from all over Bucks County, from Philadelphia out into the suburbs and from across the New Jersey state line, extending as far north as New Brunswick and as far south as Cherry Hill.

Shir Ami Rabbi Chuck Briskin (Photo by Mindy Berger)

The mikveh makes Shir Ami a Reform hub of sorts, Briskin said. And that also is how the community sees itself in general.

With a membership that used to hover around 2,000 families in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Newtown synagogue once united Jews from across the area. It still does, to an extent, though, like many temples, it has experienced a membership decline.

About 525 families are in the congregation today.

“It’s definitely holding steady over the last few years,” Shir Ami President Ellie Short said.

Even though Shir Ami’s congregation has gotten smaller, its worship may have gone a little deeper during the pandemic. According to Briskin, the introduction of a virtual option for Shabbat services increased the average crowd from about 50 people to between 70 and 80.

This same deepening may be happening in the temple’s other programs, too. During Sukkot last fall, four different member families built sukkahs on their properties and hosted fellow congregants for meals.

Everyone was invited to go to any location, and many did. More than 200 members visited at least one of the sukkahs during the week-long holiday, Briskin said.

The depth of membership is still reflected in Shir Ami’s long-established programs like its early learning center and religious school, which count 160 and 225 students, respectively.

Briskin, like many post-pandemic rabbis, points to virtual access as a key driver of increased engagement. The isolating and sometimes-tragic pandemic experience brought people closer together in spirit, he said.

After COVID emerged, Shir Ami lay leaders began calling congregants to make sure they were OK, with a particular focus on older members. Congregants also started to run errands to pick up groceries and prescription drugs for each other.

Synagogue leaders are trying to create a committee to both formalize that outreach and keep it going long-term, according to Short.

“That’s something we hold on to,” Briskin said.

Between the desire to connect and the access to do it more frequently, Shir Ami may have figured out its future during the pandemic.

Short said the synagogue recently started a record club for music lovers. Members get together to play an album by Billy Joel or Tom Petty or another artist; when the album ends, they discuss it.

The rabbi envisions other such clubs, too, around interests as wide-ranging as civic engagement and meditation, among others. Imagine 15 groups with 10 or so members each, Briskin said.

Shir Ami congregants attend a charity event at Citizens Bank Park. (Photo by Eric Goldberg)

But the groups don’t even have to be built around interests. Much like the Sukkot effort last fall, they can be based on demographics or geography.

Maybe young families want to get together for a specific activity, like the nature walks that the rabbi is now starting on the weekends. Or maybe congregants who live in Yardley want to pray or study Torah together one night or weekend morning.

“Establish a number of small groups that will have opportunities to come together,” Briskin said. “They are still connected to Shir Ami, but they won’t actually be at Shir Ami.”

The synagogue itself, though, will bring everybody back together. Briskin recognizes that a bunch of small and separate groups do not need a bigger organization to unite them.

But these small groups will be connected by their faith, their identity and their desire to practice Judaism. They also may still be united by the quality services that Shir Ami has to offer, like preschool and religious school.

“The Jewish focus is the first point of commonality,” Briskin said. “You have someone who is committed to supporting Jewish life in Bucks County and, in particular, Shir Ami.”

And if members are getting together on a more regular basis in small groups, they are unlikely to feel alone at bigger events, Briskin said.

“No one’s coming alone,” he said. “Everyone’s feeling comfortable.” JE

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