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A Sign of the Times

December 23, 2010 By:
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Suburban Jewish Community Center B'nai Aaron is selling its building and planning to merge.

Following years of steadily declining membership, Suburban Jewish Community Center B'nai Aaron, a longstanding Conservative synagogue in Havertown, is entering into merger talks with Adath Israel in Merion Station.

The decision to enter negotiations came at a Dec. 19 congregational meeting, more than a year after synagogue leaders said it no longer made fiscal sense to hold on to its 27,000-square-foot building, established in stages between the 1950s and 1970s.

It's now unclear just how long services will continue to be held at B'nai Aaron. It's also uncertain, at this point, whether Rabbi Lisa Malik, B'nai Aaron's religious leader since 2004, will have a position at the merged congregation.

The discussions are in the early stages, but one thing appears clear: The near Western suburbs clustered around Lower Merion will reduce the number of Conservative synagogues from five to four, reflecting a trend of declining affiliation rates in the movement nationwide.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the region, Temple Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Levittown, has also put its 1950s structure up for sale, citing declining membership numbers and rising costs. The congregation is not seeking a merger and hoping to find a smaller space, according to synagogue president Alan Rosenberg.

The fact that two synagogues, from separate movements and situated in completely different counties in the Greater Philadelphia area, have put their buildings on the market is indicative of the current challenges facing many religious institutions -- both economic and demographic -- as they struggle to attract and remain relevant to Jews.

To be sure, mergers and building sales have been a regular part of Jewish life well before the economic downturn began three years ago. Suburban Jewish Community Center B'nai Aaron itself is the product of at least two different mergers over the years.

But professionals in the field say that the ongoing economic malaise has pushed many struggling synagogues closer to the edge of downsizing, merging or closing outright.

"There is a realization that we can't keep doing things the way we are doing them," said Rabbi David Fine, a senior consultant for the Union for Reform Judaism.

According to Robert Evans, a former fundraising campaign director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia who now runs his own consulting firm, the average life span of a synagogue building is about 50 years.

'Stop Trying to Swim Upstream' 
Temple Shalom would appear to fit the theory. The 57-year-old congregation was founded in 1953, but opened its building four years later. The Jewish population in Levittown -- the enormous, planned suburban community -- has been declining for years, but the synagogue also serves nearby communities in Bristol, Bensalem, Langhorne and Feasterville, as well other parts of Bucks and even populations across the river in New Jersey, said Rosenberg.

About 15 years ago, members decided against a potential merger with a larger synagogue. Rosenberg said the core membership has always wanted to be part of a more intimate spiritual community and felt attached to the location.

But as membership fell to roughly 120 families, Rosenberg said that it was no longer feasible to try to maintain the 18,000-square-foot building.

"We made a decision last year to finally stop trying to swim upstream, and to look for another place," Rosenberg said, adding that they had not yet found a buyer or another place to purchase or rent.

Citing the competitive nature of synagogues, he declined to specify exactly where the congregation is looking to relocate.

"We're not crazy. If we felt there was a merger option that really made sense for us, we certainly would consider this," he said, adding that "any merger that takes us too far away from where we are and who we are isn't worth doing."

The past few years have been anxious ones for the Conservative movement, once the dominant stream in American Judaism. According to a recent study conducted on behalf of the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism, 44 percent of synagogues nationwide have fewer than 200 member families, and a quarter of synagogue leaders report that their congregations are facing serious financial difficulties.

Locally, the Conservative movement had long been the most popular, but according to the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia," the movement has fallen behind Reform, with 30 percent of respondents identifying as Conservative, while 41 percent affiliated with Reform.

This has spelled a real loss of numbers for Conservative synagogues across the region, including B'nai Aaron, which had 300 member families in 2004, but now has fewer than 200.

Locally, the United Synagogue is working to identify "congregations in transition" that may be in need of assistance, and is planning a series of workshops called "Synagogues at a Crossroads," according to Kathy Elias, director of United Synagogue's Mid-Atlantic district.

Although the population study didn't detail specific neighborhoods, a number of sources said that the Jewish population in Havertown -- which sits in Delaware County, but is close to the border with Montgomery County -- has declined substantially over the past three decades.

B'nai Aaron's president and rabbi declined to speak publicly about its future, and asked members not to speak to the media as well. But several sources said that board members had had potential merger discussions with several other Conservative synagogues in the area before recommending moving forward with Adath Israel. The two synagogues are about four miles from one another.

Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El, which had also been considered a potential partner, is physically closer to B'nai Aaron, which has a contingent of members that does not drive on Shabbat. But B'nai Aaron's leadership chose the Merion synagogue as a potentially better fit.

Insiders said it's likely that even if a merger takes place, some members will disburse and join other synagogues, rather than move to Adath Israel en masse.

One member present at the meeting, who did not wish to be identified because the merger talks are still confidential, said: "It's a very difficult time. The synagogue is a central part of many people's lives, and it's a struggle to determine the best solution for a diverse group of people."

Another said that "the impact on the Jews of Havertown is immense. The uncertainty for our rabbi, Lisa Malik, is stressful. The move from a building that has been the locus of so many memories for long-term congregants is painfully sad."

'A Seismic Shift in Identity' 
Rabbi Steven Wernick, executive vice president of the New York-based United Synagogue and former religious leader of Adath Israel, said the consolidation is good for the area around Lower Merion, where "there is too much synagogue infrastructure."

Merging the styles of two very different congregations will be one of the key negotiating points, he said, adding that Adath's facility is large enough to accommodate multiple prayer groups and varying needs.

While shrinking affiliation appears to be affecting the Conservative movement the most, Wernick said that it was a "a natural part of the evolution of the world."

It reflected, he said, the "seismic shift in Jewish identity" sweeping American Jewry -- a shift that required institutions to adapt.

He acknowledged the "trauma involved, and the real sense of loss" associated with giving up on a building or a community, but he also said that this process of loss and grieving "is a normal part of the world."

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