The founders: Neil Leibman z”l, A. Leo Levin z”l, Eric Korngold z”l, and Leon Korngold. Picture taken circa 1999. (Not pictured: George Castle z”l)
One hot, humid summer day in 1954, as Eric Korngold, Leon Korngold, Neil Leibman, and Leo Levin, were walking home from Shabbat morning services in Wynnefield, Neil suggested that they start an Orthodox synagogue in Bala Cynwyd. Leo liked the idea and immediately appointed Neil be the first president.
There were five families: Julie and Eric Korngold; Sylvia and Leon Korngold; Louise and Neil Leibman; Doris and Leo Levin; and Ruth and George Castle; formed the nucleus for the first minyanim of the Lower Merion Synagogue. During the synagogue’s first two years, Shabbat services were held at Shalva, the home of Sylvia & Leon Korngold. Rental facilities were used for the High Holidays. Yeshiva University supplied student rabbis. And indeed, Neil Leibman did serve as the first president of the Lower Merion Synagogue, and assumed that position three other times.
In 1956, we decided to purchase our current location at 123 Old Lancaster Road, Bala Cynwyd for $35,000. A $10,000 down payment was raised from the aforementioned families plus Chaim Budnick z”l. The $25,000 balance was financed by a mortgage. The property included a three-story dwelling. We held our first services there in 1957. We used the living room as our shul, and the dining room as a kiddush area.
In those early years, it was difficult to maintain a minyan, but we persevered. The Philadelphia Yeshiva ‘loaned’ us three students to help us make a daily morning minyan. Sidney Borck and some other members provided transportation to several persons who had already finished davening at the Wynnefield minyan of the Manistritse Rebbe’s. In addition, various people came to the synagogue to collect money for their own maintenance and assisted with the minyan. Over the years, several men lived above the synagogue, and they, too, helped us make a minyan.
For a few years, several of our own ordained members led the services! In 1958, as the Lower Merion Synagogue was growing, we decided to engage a full-time rabbi. Yeshiva University sent us a new graduate, Rabbi Jerome Herzog. He was followed by Rabbi Aaron Rothkoff, and then Rabbi Eli Lazar.
In the early 1960’s, Sam Goodman, z”l, spearheaded the remodeling of the first floor. The three-story dwelling served as our main synagogue until 1980, and as our Beit Midrash until its demolition in 2001.
By 1967, our membership had grown to about fifty families, and Rabbi Abraham A. Levene joined us. His knowledge of Torah, friendly smile, welcoming attitude toward children and to Jews of every affiliation, brought stability to our synagogue. The synagogue expanded exponentially and a new building was completed in 1980. There was a problem with securing a mortgage, but the Wallachs, David z”l, and his wife Janet, may she live and be well, guaranteed payment of the entire mortgage.
We thought we would never have a membership large enough to fill the new sanctuary, but with Rabbi Levene’s expert leadership and personal connection with each and every member, we shortly outgrew our newly built facilities. By the 1990s, we felt the need to expand once again. Our recently completed new building has a large main sanctuary, Beit Midrash, social hall, meeting rooms, classrooms, mikveh, and library.
Today, even though we are the largest Orthodox Synagogue in the greater Delaware Valley, we try to maintain that small, hameishe-shul feeling.
Written by Louise Leibman z”l