A moving day For synagogue, a new home

Posted: April 06, 2009

Three generations from Congregation Beth El, Cherry Hill's oldest conservative synagogue, cried, sang, and cheered as they walked 6 1/2 miles across town yesterday transporting 10 Torahs to their new home in Voorhees.

"Now I know this institution will carry on well beyond us - for my grandchildren and their children," said former president Ron Dubrow of Voorhees, who since 1995 has helped plan the construction of a $17 million synagogue at 8000 Main St. "We never thought this would happen."

But leaving the former sanctuary on Chapel Avenue in west Cherry Hill - home to the 900-family congregation for 40 years - for the last time yesterday wasn't easy for many.

"I had tears in my eyes when I left the shul," said Morris Artzi of Cherry Hill, a member since emigrating from Israel in the 1960s. "For Jews, there always comes the sad and then the happiness."

About 200 walkers ranged from tots in Power Rangers yarmulkes to young men back from college to grandmothers planning to walk "just a ways."

Their numbers thinned midroute (when six police escorts parted Route 70 at Old Cuthbert Road) and then swelled as the throng reached Cherry Hill High School East, a mile from their new home. About 1,000 paraded into the new building.

Many expressed mixed emotions. "I'm a little disappointed," said Lewis Cohen, 11, of Cherry Hill. "I was hoping to have my bar mitzvah there [at Chapel Avenue]. But I'm also really excited. I'm going to carry the Torah."

Like several longtime congregation members, vice president Iris Auerbach said she was glad the Chapel Avenue property had been sold to another religious institution, Impacting Your World Christian Center, an evangelical African American church based in Philadelphia. The sale closed last month for $5 million.

"It's a wonderful thing that the synagogue is remaining a house of prayer," she said. "At least we know it's in the hands of God."

Congregation Beth El was founded in Camden in 1920 and moved to Chapel Avenue in 1969. At the height of its membership in the 1970s, about 800 children attended religious school there. Congregation leaders realized in the late 1980s that the migration of members to east Cherry Hill, Voorhees, and Evesham was hurting attendance, president Eric Boory said.

"Families were driving across town on Route 70 at the worst possible time of day - 4 to 6 p.m. - to get to religious school," Rabbi Aaron Krupnick said.

So the congregation set its eyes east.

In 1997, Beth El bought about 10 acres on Main Street in Voorhees to build a school that opened two years later to 18 preschoolers and 200 in religious classes. Enrollment has grown to 180 toddlers and 450 school-age students.

But the sabbath, holidays, and rites of passage were still celebrated on Chapel Avenue.

"We've been fragmented for the last 10 years," Krupnick said. With yesterday's move, "the full spectrum of human emotion will take place under one roof. The place you come when you're mourning a loss is the same place your child studies. That's what a dynamic synagogue is all about."

To ease the transition for longtime members, the new building re-creates architectural features of the congregation's two previous homes, including reproductions of stained-glass windows. At the same time, it incorporates modern technology, handicap accessibility, and more seating, for up to 2,500 for the high holidays. It's made of stone imported from Jerusalem and adorned with symbols of Jacob's ladder.

"We brought with us everything we loved from Chapel Avenue and grew from there," said Boory, who leaves behind memories of his own bar mitzvah, wedding, his two sons' bar mitzvahs, and his mother's funeral.

Personally transporting the Torahs into the new home transforms the Voorhees building into a synagogue, said Rabbi Isaac Furman, longtime head of religious education. Symbolizing the marriage of building and sacred word, he said, the Torahs were carried inside under colorful chupahs, or wedding canopies, made by the congregation children.

Carrying Torahs harkens back 3,000 years to the biblical tradition of Israelis taking the Ten Commandments in the Ark of the Covenant wherever they went, Krupnick said.

"The honor of carrying the Torah is the closest we come to having the word of God in our hands," he said.

Along the 6 1/2-mile route, bystanders reached out to touch or kiss the Torahs as they passed. At the corner of Springdale and Kresson Roads, a half-dozen members of Temple Emanuel cheered the procession, including Ellen and Mark Young, who were married at Beth El. Ellen's father, Ed Ogen, was carrying a Torah. Signs along the sidewalk wished "Mazel Tov." Up the street, Temple Beth Sholom also welcomed the new neighbors.

The two other congregations also walked their Torahs when they moved to east Cherry Hill - Emanuel from west Cherry Hill in 1992 and Beth Sholom from Haddon Heights in 1989. Like Beth El, both started in Camden. The Jewish Community Center, also in the area on Springdale Road, moved from Camden to Pennsauken and then to east Cherry Hill in 1997.

"The Torahs are really transporting us," said Jeffrey Sorokin of Cherry Hill, a 35-year member.

Beth El offered rest stops every mile and rides for those who tired, but few dropped out.

Approaching the two-mile rest stop, Auerbach said: "I didn't expect to be walking this far, yet I'm glued to the walk."

"Is it a sad day or happy day, Iris?" Artzi asked her.

"It's a mixed day," she said.

Contact staff writer Cynthia Henry at 856-779-3970 or chenry@phillynews.com.

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