By Carol Balinski
- Faced with dwindling membership and financial challenges, Congregation Shomrei Habrith, Berks County's only Orthodox Jewish synagogue, has been transformed into Chabad Lubavitch of Berks County.
Chabad Lubavitch is a Jewish outreach organization that is known worldwide. The Brooklyn-based movement sends emissaries to Jewish communities large and small around the world as a means of strengthening Jewish identity
Rabbi Yosef Lipsker, who has been the congregation's rabbi since 1997, will stay on as Chabad rabbi.
Lipsker said Shomrei Habrith's declining membership made the synagogue's continued operation at 2310 Hampden Blvd. no longer viable. The congregation voted unanimously in November to make the change.
In describing what the change means, Lipsker said Shomrei Habrith was membership based, while Chabad Lubavitch has an open-door policy. No dues will be collected, as was the policy under Shomrei Habrith, but donations will be welcomed and there will be some fundraising. Lipsker hopes to reach out to attract people from all walks of Jewish life and those who want to learn more about Jewish tradition.
"I think people (in the congregation) are happy," Lipsker said. "They felt it was a blessing."
The Chabad Center will continue to offer services Friday nights at 5:30 and Saturday mornings at 9:30. Lipsker said the Chabad services use a prayer book that is slightly different than the Orthodox congregation had been using.
Lipsker said members of the congregation did not want to sell the building and decided to lease it to Chabad Lubavitch, with an option to buy it. The lease, finalized in December, stipulates that the organization provide funds for upkeep of the congregation's cemetery in Cumru Township.
Before coming to Reading, Lipsker worked for Chabad in Connecticut, England and Florida establishing youth clubs, adult education classes and running a boys high school.
He said some events will be held in sites away from the Chabad Center to reinforce the message of inclusiveness.
Lipsker said he views the Chabad Center's activities as a supplement to the work of other Jewish institutions in the area. He said he has good relationships with the Conservative and Reform rabbis in the community
"We (Chabad centers) are very traditional, but we're known as welcoming," he said.
Paul Safir, a longtime member who served on the board for Shomrei Habrith, said, "As long as the services are conducted the same way, it should remain the same as far as the religious end of it goes."
Regarding Chabad Lubavitch, Safir termed it a fine thing which does excellent work to help people.
Safir said the congregation lives on even though it no longer has its own building.
• Contact Religion Editor Carol Balinski at 610-371-5007 or firstname.lastname@example.org.