Seaside Jewish Community breaks ground on expansion project

Seaside Jewish Community, joined by local legislators and other community members, broke ground on their project Sunday. Delaware State News/Jennifer Antonik

REHOBOTH BEACH — Seaside Jewish Community celebrated a milestone Sunday morning 23 years in the making.

The groundbreaking group began meeting in 1997 when strangers responded to an advertisement in the Cape Gazette newspaper. The ad, placed by Peter Wise, owner of Pierre’s Pantry in Rehoboth Beach, requested fellowship for a Passover Seder feast to celebrate the beginning of Passover with fellow Jewish community members.

Nearly 100 members responded. By 2006, Seaside Jewish Community had grown to 200 members, prompting them to purchase their current facility on Holland Glade Road after renting it for several years from the local Odd Fellow’s organization. The building was constructed around 1965 and was originally located down the street.

Fourteen years later, the community had another need based on growth — expansion. They are now about 600 members strong and need more space so their community can continue to thrive.

“It’s bucking the trend for the nation,” said Mathew Ash, Seaside Jewish Community project manager and chair of the house committee.
“Obviously, religious communities generally, and Jewish communities in particular, are really diminishing as far as growth. And there are many, many more that are losing members. We’re one of the few, if not the only, that is growing this dramatically and it’s primarily because Sussex County is such a magnet.

“There are so many people coming in, including retirees. So, we’re seeing tremendous growth in the community and that results in growth in our membership.”

The need for an expansion was demonstrated as community members who attended Sunday’s groundbreaking had to sit in an overflow room where the ceremony was streamed live online because the sanctuary was full.

“How wonderful this is,” longtime past president Miriam Zadek said after she approached the synagogue podium during Sunday’s ceremony.

As a founding member of the community, she detailed the very beginnings that laid the foundation for the organization as it stands today.

The first gathering, the Passover Seder, was more than just a feast, she said. It also served as the organization’s first business meeting, allowing the group to start growing a Jewish community of their own in Sussex County. After the feast, they started meeting regularly in each other’s homes before outgrowing those spaces.

Remaining an unaffiliated, egalitarian and inclusive community afforded them even more opportunities as local churches and other groups offered meeting spaces as they grew, said organization co-president Alyssa Simon.

Renting, and eventually purchasing, the former Odd Fellow’s home provided the community a safe haven to call their own. The current expansion project, coming in at around $1.25 million, will continue the legacy laid out by community elders.

“Today we are building on the foundation of those founding members,” Capital Campaign Chair Marilyn Feldman said. “We are so grateful to those who helped us purchase this building and are now helping us expand.”

She joked, saying there were no perks for big donors, just small shovels with the organization’s name printed on them and a profound sense of gratitude to all involved.

“We have raised two-thirds of the total we need,” she said, offering thanks also to Epworth United Methodist Church less than a mile up the street, who will offer meeting space to the group during the construction process.

“When I went to Epworth to ask for space, I opened the conversation by saying we were about to become wandering Jews. They answered by saying they hoped it didn’t take 40 years,” she joked.

Local libraries and other places will also help offer meeting space for the Seaside Jewish Community while they grow.

The expansion has been funded by Seaside Jewish Community’s reserve funds, a capital campaign and a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security through Delaware’s Emergency Management Agency.

The project will provide a two-story addition, more than doubling the organization’s space to include enhanced security and safety elements, along with handicap accessibility options to accommodate everyone in their community.

“We now have 3,800 square feet. We’re going to be adding 4,200 square feet,” Mr. Ash said. “We’ll include, obviously, a much larger sanctuary. We’ll have an elevator. We’ll have a much larger lower level with a more modern kitchen. And we’ll have the security and audio-visual upgrades that are necessary in this day and age. It’s going to be very modest, not a fancy place. It will look very much like it does now.”

Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., joined by her father Ted Blunt, offered congratulations to the organization on their growth and milestones, along with a host of other dignitaries.

“My heart is with you. That’s really the basis of my joining you today, my team, and my father is with you today. And I think it’s really symbolic of what I’ve witnessed here today — family, faith and love. When you dig that dirt, I want to pour my love into it, too. It is our unity that makes us strong. . .” she said before the crowd walked outside to break ground.