Feb. 3 was a day for memories, emotion and a look toward the future for Adas Kodesch Shel Emeth of Wilmington, Del.
The synagogue, which follows an Orthodox liturgy with mixed seating, staged a farewell ceremony to its Percival Goodman-designed house of worship, which has stood on Washington Boulevard since 1963. Goodman was a noted synagogue designer.
Those attending the ceremony heard a short history of 134-year-old AKSE, reminiscences from congregants and remarks by Rabbi Steven Saks, Rabbi Emeritus Peter Grumbacher of Congregation Beth Emeth and congregation President Alan Bleier. Also featured were musical selections by Cantor Yehoshua Redfern and the synagogue’s High Holiday Choir.
The Torah scrolls were then removed from the ark and carried in procession by those who have read Torah for the congregation.
Several months ago, AKSE’s board and congregants decided, with a synagogue population that had dwindled from more than 500 families to about 200 over the last few decades, to sell the building to the New Mt. Olive Church Baptist Church, which will move from North Market Street in the city.
The sale’s closing is tentatively set for March 4.
AKSE’s last Shabbat services in the building will take place on Feb. 8 and 9. After that, the congregation will accept an offer from Conservative Congregation Beth Shalom and share space beginning Feb. 11 with a weekday minyan.
“It’s a case of demographics,” Saks said. “Things have changed with a lot of congregations. It is an emotional time for our congregants, as AKSE has been their home for so many years. And we have pride in our history. What’s nice is Rabbi [Michael S.] Beals at Beth Shalom and I are really good friends. I know we’ll be able to work together well and do many things together for the good of both our congregations.”
Saks went through a similar transition before in the Greater Philadelphia area. He served at Conservative Adath Zion Congregation in Northeast Philadelphia, which merged with Congregation Ner Zedek-Ezrath Israel-Beth Uziel in 2013. The Ner Zedek group became part of the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia in 2017.
Saks came to AKSE in 2008.
“This is not a merger, but a sharing agreement,” he said. “We’ll have our own offices and place of worship, our classes. You always do the best you can for your congregants.
“Over the next year, we’ll decide our future. Right now, all options are open. For now, this arrangement is outstanding for our congregants. We hope it will work well with the Jewish community in Wilmington.”
AKSE President Alan Bleier knows both synagogues well. He maintained membership at Congregation Beth Shalom for years, coming to AKSE when his father died in 2013.
“AKSE had mincha and maariv on weekdays, and it gave me a chance to say Kaddish more often,” Bleier said. “It allowed me to do more. AKSE appreciates the chesed Congregation Beth Shalom has offered. There are certain things we will do together. There is a joint project to develop a hybrid siddur. We want to make sure we maintain AKSE’s identity.”
Beth Shalom President Jodie Pezzner is pleased with bringing AKSE under her synagogue’s roof.
“We feel this is one Wilmington synagogue helping another, and Jews helping Jews,” Pezzner said. “We’re excited, and hope the whole community benefits.”
The two groups will each have theirs own place of worship. Beth Shalom has a membership of more than 400 families.
“Our building has both a sanctuary and a chapel,” Pezzner said. “Most times, we’ll use the sanctuary and AKSE the chapel, but we’re flexible with that. Say AKSE has a Bar or Bat Mitzvah one weekend, with a large group coming in, they certainly can use the sanctuary for their services and we can use the chapel if there is no special event in our synagogue.”
Pezzner mentioned another benefit of having both congregations in one house.
“If one or the other minyans is short one or two, and a congregant of either synagogue needs to say the Kaddish, we’ll never have a numbers problem with both there,” she said.
There are facilities both can take advantage of, such as Beth Shalom’s certified-kosher kitchen, which allows for Shabbat lunches or meals with other functions prepared according to dietary requirements. AKSE’s clergy has worked closely with that body.
Where the synagogues differ is in approach to worship.
While Beth Shalom is an egalitarian Conservative institution with membership in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, AKSE, on the other hand, follows the Orthodox davening structure.
As Saks mentioned, all options are on the table for AKSE. The arrangement with Beth Shalom will last a year.
“We’ll see what we decide,” Saks said. “This arrangement gives us time to make the right decision.”
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