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So how do you start a synagogue?

THE EARLY DAYS

In 1976, several families who had recently settled in the Richboro area gathered to discuss the formation of a new congregation.  Back then, the closest synagogues were in northeast Philadelphia, Levittown and Feasterville.  Early in their negotiations they discovered some key differences in their beliefs, causing the group to splinter.  Hence, the formation of two new vibrant synagogues: Ohev Shalom (in Richboro) and what was originally known as The Bucks County Jewish Congregation (located in Newtown), now Shir Ami.

In the beginning, members gathered for intermittent services at the Quaker Meeting House on the George School campus.  Their facilities were generously  donated for our use.  By the High Holy Days of 1978 the synagogue boasted a membership of thirty-five families.  Friday night services were held with the UAHC (now URJ) supplying us a monthly Rabbi du jour, and lay leadership conducting the weeks in between. Congregants constructed a portable ark by hand.  Prayer books and a Torah were donated by other synagogues.  Prior to each service these were carted by our congregants up two flights of steps from the basement of the Meeting House.  Not long after, a Sunday Hebrew School was initiated. The Executive Board of the synagogue held its weekly meetings at the Stockburger Chevrolet boardroom in Newtown, located above their service bays (and offering the residuals of the days’ exhaust fumes and oil changes).

By then, the Congregation had its first President, Dr. Ronald Abraham. Ron is also credited with finding the ground for our synagogue in 1978. At that time our part-time clergy, Rabbi Youdovin, would journey down from New York City twice a month to conduct services and was available for life cycle events. Construction began on our initial building which was to consist of a sanctuary and a school wing.  The Executive Board also took the courageous step of attempting to hire a Rabbi at the same time.  Many observers opined that the Board was committing the equivalent of economic suicide, hiring a Rabbi and building a synagogue at the same time.  Others were sure that the exhaust fumes from the car dealership’s service bays had finally permeated their brains.

A Rabbinical search committee was formed to begin a nationwide search for our Rabbi who could deliver thought-provoking sermons and attract members.   Week after week candidates were interviewed, one from as far away as Texas. When we first met Rabbi Strom a consensus developed that we had found our spiritual leader.  Rabbi Strom would probably admit that he thought we were probably too ambitious, but we're betting he saw something in our enthusiasm.  It didn't hurt that he also played guitar. When Rabbi Strom first came here he was asked literally to fill a lot of positions.  He was our Rabbi and our Cantor.  He was our educational director in charge of curriculum development for our fledgling religious school.  The synagogue office was even housed in his home until the initial synagogue construction was completed. Almost immediately after we moved into our new home we outgrew it.  Our family High Holy Day services, which were opened to anyone unaffiliated in the community, had become so popular that the new synagogue could not accommodate the large crowds.  Those services had to be moved into an 800-seat movie theater in Fairless Hills.

Soon after, we hired our first and only Executive Director, Hillary Leboff, followed shortly after by Cantor Mark Elson.  Mark immediately made an impact introducing beautiful melodies and a choir.  He has allowed us to fulfill the meaning our Shir Ami name, Song of my People. Decisions had to be made along the way regarding ritual practices.  Kipot on the bimah? Should we celebrate one day of Rosh Hashanah or two? Further building took place.  A new sanctuary, a new school wing, and a Mikveh were to follow.  We even became a lehiyot certified (special needs) congregation. There were also some painful times.  Some  of our Past Presidents passed away.  Our Torahs were stolen from our ark and subsequently recovered.

At the intersection of Route 532 and the Newtown bypass there used to be a sign that read, "Newtown - a nice place to live, worship, and shop."  We know that Shir Ami has helped to fulfill these ideals.  Our community is better because we have lived within it.  With the addition of congregation Temple Shalom several years back, we have been able to continue our Reform traditions in Bucks County, as well as make new ones.  

We have learned along our 40+ year journey that a building is necessary to entice worshippers, but what really makes a vibrant congregation is a strong Hebrew School, ongoing adult education, enthusiastic participation from our Clergy in the community, our ability to attract and absorb interfaith families, and our participation in Mitzvot.  With God’s will may this continue forever.  

May we as a congregation continue to be a blessing to our community.

Wed, December 2 2020 16 Kislev 5781