‘Soulful Shul’ Not Just a Tagline for Beth Am Israel

Beth Am Israel Hazzan Harold Messinger (front right) sings with the synagogue’s Nitzinim class of 3- to 5-year-olds. Photos courtesy of Beth Am Israel

Visitors to the Beth Am Israel website may notice the phrase “BAI: the soulful shul of the Main Line” and wonder if it’s just a marketing phrase.

But longtime Rabbi David Ackerman and Executive Director Lori Dafilou both say that’s not the case for the Penn Valley institution.

“We’re pretty serious about growing spirituality and spiritual space for our congregants,” Ackerman said.

“The synagogue had always had a reputation of doing its own thing,” Dafilou said.
And both Ackerman and Dafilou were quick to point out several programs that reflect the spirituality of the synagogue that the former sometimes describes as “Conservative with a twist.”

For example, the synagogue is taking advantage of its wooded campus to incorporate outdoor learning into the curriculum for the 54 students.

“The kids spend a lot of time in the woods,” Dafilou said, adding that themes from the Torah and other texts about caring for the world are peppered into the lessons.

Bamboo on the property was turned into wind chimes. Carrots were planted and harvested (and tasted). Composting is a mainstay. On a recent day, the children made bread by wrapping dough around a stick and cooking it over a fire.

For December, the theme of the lessons is light and darkness.

“Yesterday, it was 38 degrees at four o’clock, and we were outside,” Ackerman said, as the children searched for sparks of light before darkness. “They had a ball. … The kids jump in the carpool line to get out there.”

Rabbi David Ackerman

The ya’ar (forest) featuring a ravine was mapped out in recent years, with some trails built, Ackerman said.

The synagogue, which counts about 340 families, incorporates the outdoors into its other activities, particularly through its building and grounds.

“Our sanctuary is full of light,” Dafilou said. “The windows purposely look over our woodlands, so we bring nature into our sanctuary.

Speaking of the sanctuary, all of the classrooms open directly to it.

“We feel having kids participate in the service is essential to their Jewish education,” she said.

As for religion, Ackerman said he’s been able to experiment ritually and on the education side during his 14 years there. The prayer experience often is filled with music.

“We want it to feel like a living room jam, and it does kind of feel like a living room jam and camp,” he said.

Meantime, Beth Am Israel is working on sustainability issues, doing things such as converting to LED lighting, tapping into wind credits for electricity and only using compostable paper goods, Dafilou said.

And when nature presents a problem — a green patch in the center of the parking lots regularly flooded — attempts are made to resolve them naturally. The space was turned into a “rain garden,” with signage added to explain its purpose.

The synagogue also encourages activism. For example, it’s involved in Hazon’s Climate Leadership Coalition, distributes leftover food to the community and participates in the Lancaster Farm Fresh Co-op.

“What sets us apart is that we really live our beliefs,” Dafilou said. “We go to protests, we travel to Harrisburg, we write letters … if you have a cause you feel strongly about, we will support you and help promote it.”

Cantor Jenn Boyle, the director of family engagement and outreach, prepares dough for a Shorashim Limmud bread-making activity.

That sense of activism extends to the congregation, which long has been LGBTQ-friendly. An October event was entitled, “Judaism, Trans Identity and Civil Rights.”

“Synagogues need to be welcoming to all people,” Ackerman said. “To me, there was not and remains not a halachic problem. I’m proud and happy that we’re seen as open and welcoming to the LGBTQ-plus community.”

That includes having a gender-neutral bathroom, along with signs on the other bathrooms encouraging members to use whichever one they identify with.

Ackerman expects Beth Am Israel to continue evolving as its second century approaches.
That included some changes prompted by the pandemic. Dafilou noted that the day after the shutdown in 2019, the synagogue was conducting services via Zoom.

“We’ve continued with Zoom services to accommodate people who can’t come to the synagogue,” she said, noting that Zoom replaced the more-passive livestreaming because it allows for greater interaction with those at home.

The synagogue will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2024, having been founded during the Roaring Twenties at 58th Street and Warrington Avenue in Southwest Philadelphia. As its members moved to the Main Line, so did the synagogue, relocating to its Penn Valley location in 1973.

Events are in the planning stages, including the commission of a new Torah by Jen Taylor Friedman, the first-ever female soferim, Ackerman said.


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