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‘New beginning’ for Jewish community

Philadelphia Inquirer

Glazier Center will serve a growing population.

Over the last year, a former Baptist church in Newtown Borough has slowly been transformed into what its owners hope will become a spiritual hub for Judaism in Bucks County.

The image of a silver menorah adorns the steeple, the stained glass windows dance with Torahs and dreidels, and the front wall of the lobby is covered with slabs of Jerusalem stone.

The Glazier Jewish Center celebrated its grand opening yesterday on the eve of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah.

“It’s a new year, a new beginning, and a great time to be opening,” the center’s executive director, Rabbi Yehuda Shemtov, said last week.

Run by the Lubavitch of Bucks County, a branch of a New York-based Orthodox group with a mission to promote Jewish spirituality and culture to all Jewish people, the center aims to serve “every Jewish person in the county,” Shemtov said.

The $1.5 million project is the newest reflection of Bucks County’s growing Jewish community.

Although the total number of Jewish households in the Greater Philadelphia region has declined over the last 20 years, the number in the suburban counties of Bucks, Montgomery and Chester has grown.

The Lubavitchers, who reach out to all Jews through sites such as the Glazier Center, have followed the shift.

On the Main Line, Lubavitchers have just embarked on a $1.5 million project to renovate the legendary General Wayne Inn in Lower Merion, a Colonial-era building that has been empty since 2002. The 14,000-square-foot building, five-and-a-half times larger than the 2,500-square-foot office that the group now occupies, will offer a synagogue, children’s classes, and a kosher restaurant.

Rabbi Shraga Sherman, director of the Chabad Lubavitch of the Main Line, said he needs the space.

“We are maximizing our space to the nth degree,” he said. “It’s hard for us to get people in the door. We’re literally bursting at the seams.”

In Bucks County, which saw its Jewish population jump by 78 percent between 1984 and 1997, Lubavitchers have watched program attendance grow 25 percent year after year.

Howard Silbersher, a Yardley resident who attends Lubavitch programs and services, called the change “remarkable.”

“When we moved here [from New York in 1972], there were very few synagogues,” he said. “There has been a growth in the Jewish presence.”

The county now has 16 synagogues and at least 50,000 people in Jewish households, said Jay Podolsky, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia’s Bucks County region. That’s up from 43,600 in 1996 and more than double what it was 20 years ago, the federation’s studies show. About a third of those households came from Philadelphia.

Podolsky said the new center “helps create a greater feeling of a Jewish community in Bucks County. It’s wonderful.”

Just as a coffeehouse brings people together to socialize in a place outside home and office, the 19,000-square-foot activity center in Newtown will allow members of the Jewish community to connect with each other and explore their roots in “a third space” outside of the family or synagogue, Shemtov said.

From a gurgling fountain outside to the peach, orange, and green walls within, the building has been designed as “a welcoming, cheerful, happy place,” Shemtov said. “My whole objective is to create a Judaism that is joyful and meaningful.”