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Beth Israel's doors, and arms, wide open

| Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The 122-year-old Beth Israel Congregation in Washington is looking to grow by offering free one-year memberships to individuals, couples, college students and families.

“Normally, there are dues that are expected from active members. ... We're looking to make people feel comfortable for a year without any financial pressure,” said Marilyn Posner, president of Beth Israel, which has about 50 members.

“We have room. ... Our synagogue seats 200,” Posner said. “We are very accepting of anyone willing to come.”

At Beth Israel, annual fees range from nothing for people who are unemployed or can't afford to pay much to several thousands of dollars, she said. Free or low-cost memberships are not that unusual, said Barbara Burstin, professor of Jewish studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

“It's something that would make a lot of sense. ... Clearly, they are trying to make it attractive to affiliate,” she said.

The Jewish population in Pennsylvania has more than doubled during the past 114 years, climbing from 95,000 in 1899 to almost 295,000 last year, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

But polls say Jews are the least likely religious group to attend services once a week. A recent Gallup poll found that only 15 percent do.

Beth Israel describes itself as a conservative congregation but said it accepts the full range of Jewish observance, from secular to orthodox, and also welcomes inter-faith families.

“We are the only Jewish congregation in Washington and Greene counties,” Posner said.

The congregation also does not charge tuition at its religious school, she said.

In addition to its religious school and kosher kitchen, regular Shabbat services are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and 9:30 a.m. Saturdays, led by Rabbi David Novitsky. Activities during the year include a Yom Kippur Break-the-Fast, Chanukah luncheon and community Passover seder.

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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