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Congregation Beth Israel, now in its ninth decade, was founded in 1925 as the first Jewish congregation in Media. The congregation consisted of fourteen men when it received its charter in 1929. Services were held in various locations until the Gayley Street building was purchased in 1938 for $5650. The site was a former Friends School. The congregation was initially led by Yeshiva-trained Orthodox rabbis. In 1948 mixed seating was instituted and in 1950 a permanent ark was installed. This is the same ark we use to this day. The 1950s brought the first full-time rabbi and the first newsletter.
In the 1960s there was a decline in membership for several reasons. Facilities were lacking and some were dissatisfied with the style of worship. At the most critical point, the congregation dwindled to 33 families and there was talk of merging with another synagogue.
In the early 1970s the building was modernized and the idea of a more contemporary form of Judaism took hold. The congregation affiliated with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) which sent student rabbis to lead services. In 1972 Beth Israel joined the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot (now the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation) and the first rabbi from RRC became formally affiliated with Beth Israel. The community entered a long period of stability and growth.
In the summer of 1988, however, a congregational split resulted in the loss of about one third of the membership. After a new rabbi was hired in 1989, the congregation began to regain its vitality.
Space had always been an issue. The congregation had outgrown the religious school facilities, and the second-floor sanctuary was unable to accommodate all who wished to pray. It was necessary to hold High Holy Day services in other facilities including the Jeffords Mansion in Ridley Creek State Park. The Social Hall did more than triple duty and served as the library, secretary's office, and classroom. While the kitchen and restroom facilities were inadequate and the sanctuary too small for many occasions of communal worship, a tipping point was reached in the mid-1990s when our classrooms could not accommodate all the children of new members.
In 1996, the Board began the process of evaluating the congregation's needs for space. When all evidence pointed to the inadequacy of another renovation of the Gayley Street building, a Building Search Committee was formed and community members scouted the area for possible properties. Fortuitous connections and teamwork led us to find Beth Israel's new building on South New Middletown Road in 1997. Loans provided by a consortium of members enabled the congregation to present a more attractive bid and secure the building's purchase. In September of that year, members of Beth Israel paraded with Rabbi Linda Potemken through the streets of Media Borough and Middletown Township carrying the Torahs to their new home. Congregation Beth Israel is the second oldest congregation in Delaware County. It is also the oldest Reconstructionist congregation in the Philadelphia metropolitan area. We have a proud legacy to pass on to future generations.
(Adapted from the Case Statement for the Beth Israel Capital Campaign-L'dor V'dor)