Montgomery County center aims to keep Jews closer to Judaism

Rabbi Shaya Deitsch (right) helps Daniel Hoffman, 12, and other children grind wheat for matzo at the Chabad Jewish Education Center in Fort Washington.
Rabbi Shaya Deitsch (right) helps Daniel Hoffman, 12, and other children grind wheat for matzo at the Chabad Jewish Education Center in Fort Washington. (ED HILLE / Staff Photographer)
Posted: March 26, 2013

During the afternoon session of Hebrew school, Rabbi Shaya Deitsch is taking the once-upon-a-time out of Passover.

The rabbi and his class of sixth and seventh graders pull the grains off a stalk of wheat, the first step in a lesson about making matzo and the unleavened bread's role in the Israelites' liberation from slavery.

The class is part of the preparation for the first Passover observance at the new Chabad Jewish Education Center in Fort Washington. The holiday begins at sundown Monday.

Our "goal is to get Jews to feel closer to Judaism at whatever their level," Deitsch, 41, said.

To that end, the rabbi and his wife, Devorah, have led the building of the $4 million center on Fort Washington Avenue in Upper Dublin Township.

The two-story, 14,000-square-foot headquarters of Lubavitch of Montgomery County offers preschool, Hebrew school, adult education, synagogue services, holiday observances, and special events.

About 60 students attend the school; 30 residents attend services regularly, and attendance at holiday programs has exceeded 200.

The center is the result of nearly 20 years of teaching and leadership that began with the Deitsches, who met in New York, married, and moved to Blue Bell.

They are part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, a Hasidic movement in Orthodox Judaism that emphasizes the engagement of God through mystical experience.

The Brooklyn-based religious group is organized around a charismatic leader called a rebbe, said Joseph Davis, an associate professor of Jewish thought at Gratz College in Melrose Park.

The most recent rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who died in 1994, started a practice of sending emissaries of the faith to settle around the world, Davis said.

About 30 rabbis are leading communities in Philadelphia and the suburbs, compared to the seven living in the area when Deitsch and his wife settled in Blue Bell.

But Deitsch, who now lives in Upper Dublin, is not so concerned about winning over others to their way of practice.

"We might be ultra-religious in our personal life," Deitsch said, "but we just want to make Judaism relevant to Jews wherever they are [in their faith]."

The Deitsches, who have eight children, started the community by hosting small meetings in a neighbor's home. As participation grew, the group began renting space in Upper Dublin Township schools for youth classes and religious services.

The community raised money for a new building through private donations, the largest of which was from developer Israel Roizman and his wife, Sara, of Lafayette Hill.

Construction began in 2011. The doors opened in December.

There are no synagogue membership fees. Donations are accepted. School tuition ranges from $675 to $800.

Rabbi Deitsch also supervises groups in Rydal and Chestnut Hill.

The couple's mission is to keep Jewish learning and family involvement interesting and fun.

Chabad center programs have included a Hanukkah Wonderland with entertainment for youngsters, and "Soup and Scotch," a monthly gathering for adults.

Even the classroom decor has been selected to exude a bright and happy, yet cozy, vibe, said Devorah Deitsch, 38, the center's education director. There are floor-to-ceiling windows, and lots of wicker and wood.

Cara Medina of Ambler stopped in about a month ago when she saw the sign outside.

"The rabbi talked to us, showed us around, and it felt really comfortable," said Medina, whose family formerly attended a large synagogue. Medina's son Nick, who attends the school, calls it "really nice. Small, but good."

For Melissa Hoffman of Fort Washington, becoming involved meant overcoming what she called her own "close-minded" views about Chabad-Lubavitch.

"I didn't know anything," Hoffman said, of her first meeting with the Deitsches four years ago. But after researching the group and chatting with Devorah Deitsch, she began participating.

At 7 p.m. Monday, the center will host its first Passover community seder, which the Deitsches hope will be the first of many.

"We want to be more than just a synagogue," Rabbi Deitsch said. "We want to be a source for everything Jewish."


Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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