Beth Israel Congregation of Chester County
|Location||385 Pottstown Pike (Route 100),
Upper Uwchlan Township, Chester County,
Pennsylvania, United States
|Leadership||Rabbi: Michael Charney|
Beth Israel Congregation is a Conservative synagogue located at 385 Pottstown Pike (Route 100) in Upper Uwchlan Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania. It was founded in Coatesville, Pennsylvania in 1904 as Kesher Israel by Eastern European immigrants, and formally chartered as "Beth Israel" in 1916. It constructed its first building in 1923, and expanded it after World War II.
In 1979, Beth Israel became the first Conservative congregation to hire a woman (Linda Joy Holtzman) as a rabbi. Holtzman served until 1985, and was succeeded by Michael Charney. The congregation purchased its current property in 1989, and completed its facility there in 1995. As of 2010[update], Charney is Beth Israel's spiritual leader.
Beth Israel was founded in 1904 as Kesher Israel by Jewish immigrants to Coatesville, Pennsylvania from Eastern Europe. It established a Sunday school and purchased a cemetery in 1907, and was formally chartered as "Beth Israel" by the Chester County Court of Common Pleas in 1916.
The congregation purchased land on Fifth Avenue and Harmony Street in Coatesville in 1923, and constructed a new synagogue building there, completed in 1924. After World War II, an extension to the building added a chapel/library and classrooms, and expanded the kitchen and social hall.
Elihu Schagrin was rabbi from 1945 to 1953. Born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1918, he was ordained at the Reform Jewish Institute of Religion in 1946. During his tenure at Beth Israel he also served as chaplain of Coatesville's Veterans Affairs Hospital, and, from 1949 on, was president of the Greater Coatesville Inter-Racial Committee. In 1953 he moved to Temple Concord of Binghamton, New York.
In 1979, the congregation (which now numbered 110 families) hired Linda Joy Holtzman as rabbi. She had been ordained that year by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, and was one of thirty applicants. She was one of the first women in the United States to serve as the presiding rabbi of a synagogue. She was the first woman to serve as a rabbi for a Conservative congregation, as the Conservative movement did not then ordain women. The Reform and Reconstructionist movements had previously ordained at least ten women rabbis, but they all served as assistant rabbis, hospital chaplains, or directors of university campus Hillel organizations. The New York Times described her hiring as "a marked breakthrough for the growing numbers of women who have faced obstacles in becoming a rabbi-in-charge", and quoted Holtzman as saying "the fact that I have an appointment in a small town and that they have entrusted me with functions they believe are important is very significant for women and for the Jewish community". At the time, there were only 22 female rabbis in the entire world.
Beth Israel hired the Reconstructionist-ordained Holtzman despite the fact that it was a Conservative synagogue. The executive vice president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi Wolfe Kelman, described the appointment as "an historical breakthrough and simply fantastic", and felt that other synagogues would be encouraged to follow suit. At the time, the Rabbinical Assembly did not accept women as members, and the Conservative movement did not ordain its first woman rabbi—Amy Eilberg—until 1985. The hiring of a non-Conservative rabbi in itself was not unusual, however; due in part to a shortage of Conservative rabbis, a fifth of all Conservative synagogues in the U.S. had non-Conservative rabbis in place. While Holtzman believed in the tenets of the Reconstructionist movement, she said that members of the congregation could choose to follow either traditional or nontraditional ideas.
Beth Israel's membership was 125 families by 1983, and the synagogue building also housed B'nai B'rith and Hadassah chapters. Holtzman served at Beth Israel until 1985, when her contract was up for renegotiation. She had been living in Philadelphia and commuting to Coatesville for several years; although she and her lesbian partner had had an open commitment ceremony in Philadelphia, she had not yet come out to her congregation (but despite living something of a double life, she had enjoyed her time with the synagogue and found it very rewarding). Now she informed Beth Israel's board of directors that she and her partner were planning to have children and that she wanted co-parenting leave, and by her subsequent account, each board member privately indicated they were okay with this but that the other board members were not ready for such a development. She left the synagogue and later that year became spiritual leader of Beth Ahavah, a LGBT congregation in Center City, Philadelphia.
Events since 1985
Holtzman was succeeded as rabbi in 1985 by Michael Charney. The son and grandson of rabbis, he was ordained at the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, and served congregations in Clearwater, Florida and Bowie, Maryland before coming to Beth Israel.
The congregation purchased its current property at 385 Pottstown Pike (Route 100) in Upper Uwchlan Township in 1989. Construction on a new synagogue building there began in 1994 and completed in 1995. Designed by Callori Architects, the 30,000-square-foot (2,800 m2) facility houses a sanctuary, chapel/library, and school wing. Behind the school wing is a Holocaust memorial garden.
As of 2013[update], Charney still serves as the congregation's spiritual leader. A member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, it holds services Friday evenings, Shabbat mornings, and on Jewish holidays.
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