So how do you start a synagogue?
In 1976, several families who recently settled in the Richboro area gathered to discuss the formation of a new congregation. Back then, the closest synagogues were in northeast Philadelphia, Levittown and Feasterville. Early in their negotiations they discovered differences in their beliefs, causing the group to splinter. Hence, the formation of two new vibrant synagogues, Ohev Shalom (in Richboro) and what was originally known as The Bucks County Jewish Congregation (in Newtown), now Shir Ami.
In the beginning, members gathered for intermittent services at the Quaker Meeting House on the George School campus (facilities were generously donated for our use). By the High Holidays of 1978 the synagogue boasted a membership of thirty five families. Friday night services were held with the UAHC (now UJR) supplying us monthly a Rabbi du jour, with lay leaders conducting the weeks in between.
Congregants constructed a portable ark by hand. Prayerbooks and a Torah were donated by other synagogues. Prior to each service these were carted by our congregants up two flights of steps from the basement of the Meeting House. Not long after, a Sunday Hebrew School was initiated.
The Executive Board of the synagogue held its weekly meetings at the Stockburger Chevrolet Board Room in Newtown, located above their service bays and offering the residuals of the days’ exhaust fumes and oil changes.
By then the Congregation had its first President, Dr. Ronald Abraham. Ron is also credited with finding the ground for our synagogue in 1978.
At that time our part-time clergy, Rabbi Youdovin, would journey down from New York City twice a month to conduct services and was available for life cycle events.
Construction began on our initial building which was to consist of a sanctuary and a school wing. The Executive Board also took the courageous step of attempting to hire a Rabbi at the same time. Many observers opined that the Board was committing the equivalent of economic suicide, hiring a Rabbi and building a synagogue at the same time. Others were sure that the exhaust fumes from the car dealership’s service bays had finally permeated their brains.
A Rabbinical search committee was formed to begin a nationwide search for our Rabbi who could deliver thought-provoking sermons and attract members. Week after week we interviewed candidates, one from as far away as Texas.
When we first met Rabbi Strom a consensus developed that we had found our spiritual leader. Rabbi Strom would probably admit that he thought we were probably too ambitious, but we're betting he saw something in our enthusiasm. It didn't hurt that he also played guitar.
When Rabbi Strom first came here he was asked literally to fill a lot of positions. He was our Rabbi and our Cantor. He was our educational director in charge of curriculum development for our fledgling religious school. The synagogue office was even housed in his home until the initial construction was completed.
Almost immediately after we moved into our new home we outgrew it. Our family High Holiday services, which were opened to anyone unaffiliated in the community, had become so popular that the new synagogue could not accommodate the large crowds. Those services had to be moved into an 800-seat movie theatre in Fairless Hills.
Soon after, we hired our first and only Executive Director, Hillary Leboff, followed shortly after by Cantor Mark Elson. Mark immediately made an impact introducing beautiful melodies and a choir. He has allowed us to fulfill the meaning our name, Song of my People.
Decisions had to be made along the way regarding ritual practices. Kipot on the bimah? Should we celebrate one day of Rosh Hashanah or two?
Further building took place. A new sanctuary, a new school wing, and a Mikveh were to follow. We even became a lehiyot certified (special needs) congregation.
There were also some painful times. Some of our Past Presidents passed away. Our Torahs were stolen from our ark and subsequently recovered.
At the intersection of Route 532 and the Newtown bypass there used to be a sign that read, "Newtown-a nice place to live, worship, and shop". Shir Ami has helped to fulfill these ideals. We know our community is better because we have lived within it.
And now we welcome the community of Temple Shalom who we know will help us to continue our traditions and make new ones. We have learned along our journey that a building is necessary to entice worshippers, but what really makes a vibrant congregation is a strong Hebrew School, adult education, our clergys’ participation in the community, our ability to attract and absorb interfaith families, and our participation in Mitzvot.
With God’s will may this continue forever. May we as a congregation continue to be a blessing to our community.