Society Hill Synagogue To Celebrate Long-awaited Expansion

An old synagogue building painted a cool grey is connected by a glass door to a red brick Philly-style rowhouse.
Society Hill Synagogue’s historic 418 Spruce St. building next to the renovated rowhouse at 430 Spruce St. | Courtesy of Sahar Oz

Fifteen years is a long time to wait, but for Society Hill Synagogue, the waiting has paid dividends.

The “independent egalitarian” congregation at 418 Spruce St. bought an old colonial row home at the adjacent 430 Spruce St. in 2007, hoping to transform the building into an accessible extension for its education programming. 

Over two phases of fundraising from 2007 to 2019, the synagogue raised more than $4 million and completed construction and renovation of the buildings during the pandemic. Though construction finished in early 2021, and the synagogue held classes there over the summer, the synagogue will officially celebrate its new space on April 29.

The space offers six classrooms for the synagogue’s Ann Spak Thal Hebrew school, playschool and adult education classes — an upgrade from the original building’s three. The Hebrew school — which are now held on Tuesdays and Saturdays, rather than Tuesdays and Sundays — and playschool will offer three new classes in the summer, two of which are already at full capacity.

The construction costs also covered an expansion of the 418 Spruce St. social hall, an outdoor space behind the two properties and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant elevators and restrooms. The expansion will allow adult congregants and children to meet in the same space for Saturday morning onegs and kiddushes.

As the synagogue, established in 1967, grew to its now-membership of 300 households, the need to expand became apparent to leadership.

In a classroom, a group of kids wearing masks and kippot and looking at the camera and smiling.
Students and teachers from the youngest class in the synagogue’s playschool, the Comets Class, which opened in June 2021 as one of the new classes made possible by the construction of the Paula Kline Learning Center.​

“We were just bursting at the seams,” synagogue President Jeremey Newberg said.

To accommodate all of the Hebrew school students on Sundays — which, pre-pandemic, numbered more than 85 — the synagogue split the students: First- through fourth-graders attended Hebrew school from 9-11 a.m., and fifth- through Hebrew-high school students took the second shift from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. For parents with multiple children, the headaches of multiple commutes to and from the urban synagogue were quickly evident, Newberg said.

Sahar Oz, the synagogue’s executive director and once-education director, said that adult education classes shared a space with a playschool classroom.

“You were doing text study, and you have creatively designed butterflies and things hanging from the ceiling,” he said.

As the synagogue gained awareness of the accessibility needs of its congregants, it realized the current space wasn’t making the cut.

“We had this Soviet-style lift that was pathetic,” Newberg said. “It was really loud and undignified for someone with physical disabilities to come to services.”

After the 2007 buy of the new space, the synagogue community raised $1.44 million, almost half of its goal, before the 2008 recession hit. Funding for the project was halted for almost a decade, when synagogue leadership gained community input on how to move forward with the space.

“We regrouped, and we just got to the core of what is needed,” Newberg said. “The vision for 430 Spruce as an education hub really resonated.”

From 2017 to 2019, Society Hill Synagogue held phase two of its capital campaign, raising $2.64 million from 174 member-households and surpassing the goal by $200,000. Though the synagogue relied on 20 donors for 72% of the funding, 55% of the synagogue community chipped in for the project.

The new education hub, the Paula Kline Learning Center, was named to honor the late wife of synagogue member and donor Tom Kline, who died in 2004.

A short while man in a black mask and blue kippah is standing next to a taller older white man who is smiling at him. They are standing at the entrance of the Paula Kline Learning Center.
Tom Kline (right) and Frank Wolf affixed the mezuzah at the entrance to the Paula Kline Learning Center in memory of their late wife and sister Paula Kline.

But Newberg was cautious about relying on big donors early in the campaign. He employed the motto, “Make a joyful stretch,” to the congregants, encouraging members to give a dollar amount that felt like a true investment in the synagogue community but one that wouldn’t break the bank.

“The dollar amount that you give is not the issue; it’s that you gave something,” Newberg said. “A capital campaign is part of the mitzvah of being a member, and mitzvot is not only good deeds, but it’s affirmative obligations. So making a joyful stretch is fulfilling your obligation to support the institution you love.”

For Rabbi Nathan Kamesar, the expansion finishing up during a lull in COVID numbers brings promise for the re-establishment of physical community with intergenerational connections and schmoozing that can’t be replicated over Zoom and were stunted by the tight quarters of the synagogue’s cramped historic building.

“It is definitely a hope for me that people find themselves drawn to services and adult education, but I am equally, if not more excited, when I just see a bustling social hall over a kiddush lunch,” Kamesar said.

[email protected]


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here