By Rhonda Hoffman
“I’ve been a rabbi longer than I’ve been alive,” kibitzes (Yiddish for “jokes”) Rabbi Sandra Berliner, spiritual leader of the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, which this year is celebrating its 60th anniversary. The latest event to mark that milestone, the Diamond Jubilee Gala, is set for Sunday, June 25, 3 p.m., at the synagogue’s Far Northeast location along Verree Road. The $50 cost per person includes a lavish dinner and entertainment by the Cracklin Diamond Band.
The event is drawing both current and former congregants from throughout the Delaware Valley and beyond, according to Jacques Lurie, the synagogue’s executive and educational director for nearly 25 years. Joining him in marking the occasion will be the synagogue’s president, Fran Gabriel, a longtime member of the congregation along with her husband, Jerry. For decades, the pair has been supportive of the synagogue’s mission, which aims to bring together a diverse group of worshipers in a welcoming, respectful environment.
According to Rabbi Berliner, 67, the first female spiritual leader in the synagogue’s history, there is unity in community. In fact, the word “unity” is contained in the word “community.” Although there may be some diversity in the community served – in both faith and practice – the aim is to accommodate all under one roof.
As to why there hasn’t been a female rabbi prior to last year’s hiring of Rabbi Berliner, it’s mainly because the synagogue has been Traditional with a capital “T.” But with the introduction of egalitarian services, an attempt to adjust to more modern times and better treatment (in general) of females in the religious hierarchy, the door has been opened for a female religious leader to step in and be accepted and embraced by the congregation.
Having merged with more than a dozen synagogues, including, in its more recent history, Beth Judah, Beth Emeth, Ner Zedek and Adath Zion, Shaare Shamayim’s membership now numbers about 400 families.
As to why the synagogue has seen so many mergers, it’s because so many synagogues in the area (and beyond) have shuttered their doors due to declining membership, an aging population and the younger generations’ general lack of interest in formal worship. Rather than become a footnote in history, these synagogues have found a home in Shaare Shamayim for some of their ritual items (including Torahs), memorial plaques and remaining congregants.
Mindy and Ray Poliner, members of the synagogue for more than a half-century, joined as a young couple with a growing family in the late 1960s. Loyal and steadfast congregants, they have both contributed immeasurably to the synagogue’s growth and well-being, serving in various positions, supporting and participating in dozens of events and programs through the years.
Cantor Don Samuels has served in his current capacity for more than two-thirds of the synagogue’s history and brings a lifelong love of music and teaching to his role. Supporting him in those efforts is the more recently hired Cantor Bernard Walters.
The synagogue had humble beginnings. The late Rabbi Arnold Feldman assumed leadership of the fledgling synagogue while serving on the pulpit at B’nai Yitzhok, formerly at B Street and Roosevelt Blvd. He was instrumental in designing the synagogue’s stained glass windows adorning the sanctuary. From the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, he served as top religious leader at Shaare Shamayim before becoming rabbi emeritus and earning a law degree.
Several rabbis followed, contributing to the synagogue’s illustrious history, including Rabbi Ira Grusgott, who later made aliyah in Israel. Rabbi Berliner, who once aspired to be a performer on the Broadway stage, was officially appointed as Shaare Shamayim’s full-time rabbi last August. Having previously served in the same capacity at Temple Menorah in the city’s Mayfair section, she brings a wealth of experience to her current role.
Being accessible and approachable is one of the rabbi’s goals, something that she also cultivated in her longtime service at Federation Housing, the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s subsidized residential complex, where she led discussion series on timely topics, holiday programs and memorial services, along with support groups and private counseling sessions (she’s also a professionally credentialed social worker).
Synagogue president Fran Gabriel, who has held that leadership position since 2016, is looking forward to making more memories. In a recent issue of The Scroll, the synagogue’s monthly publication, she marvels at “the commitment, the spirit and ‘the special sauce’ that has kept our community strong for 60 years.”
Gabriel considers her commitment to and involvement with Shaare Shamayim to be her second career. After retiring from the full-time workforce several years ago, she felt she needed something more to occupy her time and passion.
And indeed, she has found it. ••
For more information about the 60th anniversary gala and other upcoming events, call the synagogue office at 215-677-1600 or go to its website at www.shaareshamayim.org.