Back in the early 1960s, the Oxford Circle-based Temple Sholom was looking to open a satellite synagogue farther up in the Northeast.
Ten couples from the Bustleton/Somerton area met on July 26, 1962, at the home of David and Sophie Silver. David was a businessman and president of the Greater Bustleton Civic League who would later become a city councilman.
“He said, ‘Why can’t we start a synagogue ourselves?’ ” recalled Sophie Silver, whose husband died in 1990.
The local Jewish men spent countless hours looking for a property.
“At two o’clock in the morning, they were riding around and found this ground,” Sophie Silver said.
The ground was located at 9768 Verree Road, the current site of the synagogue. Before the place was built, services were held at the Silver home at 9991 Verree Road.
“We had services on Friday night and Saturday morning, and a hundred and forty children came to Hebrew school in my house,” said Sophie Silver, 87, who lived in the home until last year. “Some days, there was not a room empty.”
Back then, Verree Road was a two-lane country road. There was no traffic light at the intersection with Red Lion Road.
“There was nothing up here,” said Sophie Silver, who founded the synagogue’s Sisterhood group. “It was really suburban.”
On Sept. 14, 1962, the group of founding members incorporated as Greater Northeast Jewish Congregation. Membership reached 175 families in the first year.
High Holy Day worship services were held in the auditorium of Bethesda Presbyterian Church on Red Lion Road.
By 1963, a new synagogue was erected on Verree Road, just north of Welsh Road, on two and a half acres of what old-timers called a “hill of rocks.” The purchase price was $20,000.
The families chipped in to make sure the sanctuary and school were ready for Rosh Hashanah that year.
The Greater Northeast Jewish Congregation merged in 1966 with Congregation Shaare Shamayim, at 23rd and Wharton streets in South Philadelphia. The Verree Road synagogue’s new name became Congregation Shaare Shamayim, which translates to “Gates of Heaven.”
An addition was built in 1971.
Over the years, the synagogue has had five more mergers and today is known as Congregations of Shaare Shamayim rather than a name that includes all the closed congregations.
“We would have needed a wider piece of paper to print the letterhead,” joked longtime member Barry Pogach.
On Sunday afternoon, the Conservative synagogue will celebrate its 50-year anniversary. The 500 families who make up the membership rolls believe they have plenty to celebrate.
“The numbers are very strong,” said executive director Jacques Lurie. “This building is open seven days a week from daybreak until 11 o’clock at night. We do everything from daily prayer to Zumba.”
The Congregations of Shaare Shamayim will celebrate in style.
The acclaimed Broadway Sings will entertain. The group features stars of top Broadway shows.
“They’re a top draw. I’ve never heard of anyone who has seen them giving them a bad review,” said Pogach, who is the celebration’s chairman.
David L. Cohen, executive vice president at Comcast Corporation, will receive the Kol HaKavod Award.
The family of A. Nathan Ferman, an active member of the congregation, will receive an award in his memory.
The honorary co-chairmen of the event are former Gov. and Mayor Ed Rendell and former City Controller Jonathan Saidel, a member.
“It’s going to be a great day,” Pogach predicted. “I’ve been walking through the doors since 1967. It’s a big event that comes once in a lifetime. And it will be a nice-size fund-raiser for the congregation.”
The heyday of the synagogue was in the late 1970s, when about 1,000 families were members. But much of the local Jewish population has moved to Bucks and Montgomery counties.
Still, it’s a flourishing congregation.
Among the regular activities that place on site are three daily services, a preschool, kindergarten, religious school and summer camp. Groups include the Men’s Club, Sisterhood, Teen Learning Community, Empty Nesters, Seniors Going On and Mid-Life Maniacs.
People of all ages spend a lot of time at the synagogue.
“This is definitely our home,” said Linda Korsin, a member since the late ’70s.
Each year, the synagogue holds a political candidates forum.
In addition, it has welcomed some pretty prominent folks.
In 2004, Joan Rivers headlined a synagogue fund-raiser. U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman visited in 2008 to campaign for presidential candidate John McCain.
Other guests have included Israeli Prime Ministers Benjamin Netanyahu, Yitzhak Shamir and Ariel Sharon, and Ari Fleischer, press secretary to President George W. Bush.
“It’s been a very exciting first fifty years,” said cantor Don Samuels, who has been a member since 1980. “It’s been thirty-two years of change because the Northeast has changed. But we’ve kept a vibrant organization going. If you drive down Verree Road at nine o’clock on a Tuesday, every light could be on.”
Rabbi Jean Claude Klein has been on staff for four years. He cites the synagogue’s commitment to Israel and religious educational outreach to youths and adults as important aspects of life at Shaare Shamayim.
“We continue to be God’s house in the Northeast, welcoming to all people,” he said.
Associate Rabbi Daniel Wolpe, on staff for two years, said the synagogue serves an important role for hundreds of families.
“Shaare Shamayim, in many ways, is the center of Northeast Philadelphia Judaism,” he said. “The staff takes that mantle very seriously.”
Lurie said Shaare Shamayim is not just “chugging along.”
“It’s truly been fifty years of amazing activity in this building,” he said. ••
Join the celebration …
The Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, 9768 Verree Road, will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Doors open at 2 p.m.
Broadway Sings will provide the entertainment.
The cost is $36 for general admission, $54 for reserved seating and $118 for front-reserved seating and a cocktail reception with the Broadway Sings cast in the auditorium.
Tickets are available at the door or in advance by calling 215-677-1600.EndFragment EndFragment