Montgomery Avenue: More Than Ever, a Magnet for Orthodox Jews

In 1957 there weren’t many Orthodox Jews in Lower Merion. There weren’t many Jews at all. The synagogues Har Zion, now in Penn Valley, and Beth David, now in Gladwyne were going strong, but they were still in Wynnefield. Main Line Reform was holding services in a big old house in Wynnewood. Adath Israel had already moved to its current location on Old Lancaster Road, in Merion, but construction on its big domed sanctuary did not start until the following year.

Also in 1957, Lower Merion Synagogue (LMS) moved to its current location, also on Old Lancaster Road directly across the street from Adath Israel. In 1957 LMS was the only Orthodox synagogue in the township. Its “monopoly” lasted for close to 40 years.

Then, in the late 1990s, a large number of Orthodox Jews began buying homes near Montgomery Avenue and the Orthodox community started to grow. Instead of one, the neighborhood is now home to five Orthodox synagogues. All four of the new synagogues are on Montgomery Avenue, none more than a half-hour’s walk from the other.

In addition to the four synagogues and along the same less-than-two-mile Montgomery Avenue strip, two kosher restaurants have set up shop and a third one is on the way. There is also a kosher wine and book store. In 2010, the Orthodox Kohelet Yeshiva High School opened across the street from LMS, two blocks south of Montgomery Avenue.

The first synagogue to appear on Montgomery Avenue was Young Israel. It now owns the building at 273 Montgomery Avenue (next door to Aldar, on the same block as Murray’s). Attendees of Young Israel learn and worship in a small street-level storefront. Roni’s Pizza also rents space there, and there are several office tenants upstairs.

By 2000, Young Israel was joined on the street by Aish Philadelphia. Aish is a worldwide Jewish Orthodox organization, with headquarters in Jerusalem. In 2008, Aish bought the Cynwyd Presbyterian Church building. In 2012 they sold the building to Kosloff Torah Academy for Girls (KTA). KTA now shares the building with Aish. (The school is named after former Sixers owner, the late Irv Kosloff.)
The KTA’s main campus building was designed by Horace Trumbauer.

About 12 years ago, Philadelphia Community Kollel opened its doors a block west of Young Israel. In 2008, Kollel bought the building where it is currently located, on “the Hymies block” of Montgomery Avenue.

In 2003, a young Lubovitch rabbi named Shraga Sherman, shocked Main Line real estate observers when he announced that his group, Chabad of the Main Line, was going to buy the General Wayne Inn, in Narberth.

Most Jews living on the Main Line in the latter part of the 20th century were oblivious to the Inn’s 300-year history. After World War II through the nineties, the building housed a quintessentially Old Main Line restaurant that bore the name General Wayne Inn (dark wood paneling, big fireplaces, steaks-chops-lobster, solicitous waiters, and overcooked vegetables). There was never even a hint of anti- Semitism there, but on the other hand, very few Jews dined at the General Wayne Inn because, well, it was so Goyish.

Then for a brief period in the mid-’90s nineties, the Inn became “hot” and the clientele more mixed. A pair of chefs named Guy Sileo and Jim Webb had established a reputation at a place in Morton (Delaware County), called American Bistro. They moved into the General Wayne Inn, and were an instant hit. Their success was short-lived. On the day after Christmas, 1996, in an office upstairs at the inn, Sileo shot Webb in the head, and killed him. Sileo is now serving a life sentence for the murder.

Even before Webb’s death, the inn had a reputation for being inhabited by ghosts. A Tory or Hessian soldier was allegedly hanged there and… ah, never mind. If that stuff interests you, click here.

Shraga Sherman certainly didn’t seem at all concerned about the alleged ghosts in his new digs. In 2004 he told the Inquirer’s Matthew P. Blanchard: “Well, with a mezzuzah on every door, whatever negativity transpired in this building, the positivity and holiness that we’re going to bring in will marginalize it and push it out the door.”

Although it’s been more than five years since a new synagogue has opened on “the strip,” the demographics of the neighborhood are tilting more and more toward Orthodox. One result is that Beth Samberg has become very busy. She heads up the SAMBERG Team at Fox & Roach’s Haverford Home Marketing Center. A high percentage of Samberg’s clientele are Orthodox Jews, as is Samberg.

Samberg thinks “we’re growing at a faster speed than we were 10 years ago.” So that raises the question, where are all these people coming from?

It doesn’t take a Shelock Holmesberg to figure out that if you’ve got a large migration of Jews into a Philadelphia suburban neighborhood, then some of them are coming from the New York area. Samberg, for example, was born and raised in Long Island, but her husband Aaron Epstein ( a hydrologist) is from San Francisco.

When they were first married they lived in Los Angeles. However, after 9/11, Beth decided that she wanted to move back to the East Coast. She and Aaron spent three months camped out at Beth’s mother’s house in Long Island, while they explored the Amtrak Corridor, looking for their ideal community.

At first they thought they would end up in Baltimore, but then Aaron got a call from a company in Philadelphia. So they spent the weekend here “staying with strangers.” Beth said that after they drove down Bala Avenue, she turned to Aaron and said, “This is where we’re going to live for the rest of our lives.” They have in fact lived in Bala since 2003.

Another factor: While Orthodox Jews do not dominate eds and meds, they’re not exactly underrepresented, either.

Samberg says that Orthodox Jews are being drawn to Montgomery Avenue from as close as Cherry Hill and from as far away as the West Coast. She says it’s not hard for her to convince people to move here “when you’ve got a community that’s growing, and that’s as warm and embracing as Lower Merion is. I don’t believe there’s any other Orthodox community in the country — and I’ve lived in a bunch of them — that is as warm as Lower Merion. It’s big enough so that you are always meeting someone new, and small enough that you always see someone you know.”