No longer able to draw a minyan on Shabbat — let alone on weekdays — Young Israel of Oxford Circle, founded 53 years ago, has decided to close its doors for good, making it the latest Northeast Philadelphia synagogue to fall victim to changing demographics and a worsening economic picture.
"Fifty years ago, people never thought that the neighborhood would change so totally that there wouldn't be enough Jews to come to a minyan," lamented Stanley Grosswald, president of the Orthodox congregation. "It's like the death of a person. Sometimes, if you are too close to a death, it's not easy to bounce back from it."
On March 15, the 68-year-old sent a letter to the National Council of Young Israel in New York, which represents roughly 150 Orthodox synagogues in North America, informing the leadership that membership, participation and finances of the shul had dwindled to the point that it could no longer function.
According to Young Israel's by-laws, if a congregation can no longer support a daily minyan — something Oxford Circle hasn't been able to do for some time now — the synagogue property is supposed to revert to the national organization.
"It's unfortunate," said Rabbi Pesach Lerner, executive vice president of the National Council of Young Israel.
Lerner said it's rare that the national council has actually had to take such a step. He added that the fate of the building has not yet been decided, but acknowledged that selling it is indeed a possibility.
"Whatever proceeds there are will go to continue [our] mission," said Lerner.
Not Happy With the Outcome
Grosswald doesn't dispute that control of the building rests with the office in New York; he's just not happy about it.
"I have the terrible task of closing the synagogue and saying 'New York, take it away and make your money,' " he said.
Grosswald did add that the Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley will display the synagogue's yahrzeit plaques.
While the synagogue is now officially closed, a handful of people have still been gathering at the building for informal Shabbat services, according to Grosswald.
When the shul opened back in 1956, Oxford Circle was a thriving Jewish area. Though housed in a small building, the synagogue, at its height, had several hundred members.
However, the composition of the neighborhood has changed in the past few decades; Jews have largely moved away and been supplanted by other ethnic minorities.
In explaining the demographic changes, Rabbi Julius Meles, who helped start the synagogue and has led it since its inception, said in recent years, more and more members either moved from the area, passed away, or were simply no longer physically able to make it to synagogue.
"It makes me feel very bad. We existed longer than many other shuls; we were a real family," said Meles, who several years ago moved to the Rhawnhurst section of Northeast Philadelphia, which still has an active Orthodox community, with about half-a-dozen shuls and a yeshiva that opened in 2007.
Grosswald said that 30 to 35 people attended the most recent High Holiday services, but he acknowledged that they've rarely had a minyan on Shabbat since then, and therefore, have been prohibited from reading the Torah aloud.
The closing follows a trend in recent years, especially in what's considered the Lower Northeast, where change has been more pronounced than in parts of Rhawnhurst and the Far Northeast. Last year, Adath Zion Congregation decided to merge with Congregation Ner Zedek-Ezrath Israel-Beth Uziel on Bustleton Avenue in Rhawnhurst.
In 2004, Oxford Circle Jewish Community Centre-Brith Israel, which at one time was one of the larger Conservative synagogues in the immediate area, closed its building and merged with Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park.