Friday, February 09, 2007

Lubavitch Debuts Its Hub With a Flourish

February 08, 2007 - Rachel Silverman

It's been seven years of real estate shopping, zoning-board hearings, fundraising and construction, but Lubavitch of the Main Line finally has a new home -- at one of the oldest spots in town.

The General Wayne Inn, which once served as a pub for British redcoats and later as a post office founded by Benjamin Franklin, will now play host to a bevy of Jewish activities.

Speaking at a lavish opening ceremony on Jan. 31, Rabbi Shraga Sherman, director of Lubavitch of the Main Line, called the refurbished space "a tremendous nexus of this three-millennia-history of the Jews and the 300-year-history of the building."

An old stone fireplace, for example, now houses an ark and two Torah scrolls, and portraits of Franklin flank the entrance to the property's on-site kosher restaurant.

Other additions to the building, which dates back to 1704, include a large multipurpose room for services and B'nai Mitzvah, Hebrew and preschool classes, administrative offices, as well as up-to-date electrical, sprinkler and fire-safety systems.

Sherman said that the inn gives Lubavitch much more visibility -- and physical space -- than its old Bala Cynwyd hub.

"We used to have to rent off-site locations for holiday celebrations and services," Sherman said of that office, known as the Mitzvah Factory. "As more and more people attended, and the array of programming expanded, we knew we needed more space."

However, the search for a vacancy in the primarily residential and heavily developed Main Line proved challenging. That's why when the storied General Wayne Inn went on the market in 2003, three individuals involved with Lubavitch -- Morris Willner, Gary Erlbaum and Steven Erlbaum -- immediately placed a bid on it.

After obtaining the property, Lubavitch spent two years getting the necessary zoning, and working out parking and traffic arrangements with Lower Merion Township. Construction, under the leadership of general contractor Core Management, took another year -- and $1 million -- to complete, said Sherman.

Though some elements of the building remain unfinished -- Sherman said that they are still searching for a vender for the kosher restaurant and to stock the gift shop with Judaica -- most Lubavitch programs have been up and running at the inn since the summer.

The grand-opening event -- which was attended by nearly 400 guests, and included abundant food trays and a musical performance -- was a public celebration. Sherman noted that the occasion allowed Lubavitch to thank various supporters and to announce its presence in the neighborhood.

Many who attended, like Lubavitch of Main Line education director Tsipy Weiss, practically gushed about the new building.

"It validates us a little bit," said the 29-year-old, who heads the preschool and Hebrew-school programs. "When you're in a [dumpy] little building, people are going to take you like that. Now, we're bigger; we're able to offer a lot more classes. We already have more people enrolled."

More importantly, perhaps, the facility provides a new home for the organization's message.

Rabbi Moshe Brennan, who also acts as programming director of the Lubavitch chapter, said that message is about "exposing Jewish people to their Judaism," regardless of their synagogue and denominational affiliations.

He said that the center will continue to offer classes on the Torah and Kabbalah, but that it's expanded to include topics like mystical ethics and the Hebrew language. He stressed that Lubavitch is making a concerted effort to reach all demographics -- children, women, families -- with classes like the new "Mommy & Me," women's fitness and challah-baking.

The Lubavitch approach to outreach resonated with Wynnewood resident Eunice Miller, who said that she recently signed up for a seminar on growth and development.

"You feel comfortable walking through this door," said Miller, a member of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Overbrook Park. "It doesn't require any religious commitment; it's not threatening in any way."

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