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Closing of Synagogue Signals End of an Era

July 21, 2011 By:
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Temple Shalom members prepared hamantashen for Purim in 2009. The congregation is slated to vote on a merger proposal.

When William Jaird Levitt first established Levittown, Pa., in the 1950s, he set aside land to house schools, churches and synagogues. More than five decades later, the only remaining Jewish house of worship in the planned community is poised to close its doors.

Temple Shalom recently signed an agreement of sale with Easter Seals of Southeastern Pennsylvania, a nonprofit organization that serves children and adults with disabilities.

And just last week, the Reform synagogue's board unanimously voted to accept a merger proposal from Shir Ami-Bucks County Jewish Congregation, a 700-family Reform synagogue in Yardley.

The full congregation must still approve the merger and insiders say there could be resistance from longtime members who have taken pride in maintaining the small Bucks County congregation.

A previous merger effort failed in 1997, when the synagogue board first voted to merge with Shir Ami but, by a slim margin, the membership rejected the offer.

The loss of Temple Shalom, which was founded in 1953 -- though its building wasn't finished until four years later -- means that Levittown, the enormous, planned, post-World War II community with a current population of 55,000 residents, would no longer have a synagogue. In the mid-1990s, the town's other congregation, Beth El, a Conservative synagogue, relocated north to Yardley.

The nearby Bristol Jewish Center, a Reconstructionist synagogue with 65 families, lacks a full-time rabbi or a Hebrew school.

Temple Shalom's fate has mirrored the town in which it grew, subject to changing demographics and economics. The Jewish population of Levittown has been declining for decades, with many moving north and now disbursed throughout much of Bucks County.

It's been two years since the congregation decided to sell its 18,000-square-foot structure, according to Alan Rosenberg, the synagogue's president. At first, the congregation -- whose membership had fallen to about 90 families -- hoped to use the proceeds to continue to exist, possibly by renting space.

In the end, he said, the sale of the building didn't bring in enough money for the congregation to rent a space, run a school and continue to pay a rabbi and staff.

"The numbers really didn't indicate we could survive at anywhere near the level that we would want for our synagogue," Rosenberg wrote in an email. "What was best for us, I think is best for the Jewish community -- merge with another viable synagogue and not add to the competition."

Officials said the synagogue plans to honor the final year of Rabbi Annette Koch's three-year contract. Koch could not be reached for comment. Officials said it's not yet clear whether the synagogue would disband before the High Holidays.

Nationwide, barely a handful of Reform synagogues have closed or merged over the past year, according to Rabbi David Fine, senior consultant with the Union for Reform Judaism, which has about 900 member congregations nationwide.

Instead, he said, congregations are looking to cooperate to save costs as they also try to figure out how to get young members to join in larger numbers.

Bucks has a total of 13 synagogues and close to 48,000 Jews, according to the 2009 "Jewish Population Study of Greater Philadelphia."

Levittown was built as a working-class community and enticed young families with relatively inexpensive housing. The children of Levittown residents have settled elsewhere, and many residents themselves have moved to newer and more affluent communities in other parts of the county, Rosenberg said.

He also said that as larger synagogues like Shir Ami came on the scene, "Temple Shalom became a less and less attractive option versus the big, pretty, fancy synagogue."

Shir Ami's president, Becky Markowitz, said the current merger process is "going in the right direction."

Referring to the previous failed merger attempt, she said that "we can learn from the past. We are still looking toward the future instead of just keeping the status quo. That's what we have to do to keep Reform Judaism vibrant."

Shir Ami's merger offer includes three years of free membership dues, according to Larry Lefkowitz, a former Temple Shalom president.

Rosenberg acknowledged that some in the congregation aren't happy with the decision.

"They may feel that we could take the proceeds from the sale and exist temporarily or even establish a tiny sort of personal synagogue until the funds run out," he wrote in the email. "I am hoping this is a very small minority and does not adversely affect our merger vote."

But Lefkowitz predicted that "it may not pass." If it does, he said, he's not sure he wants to join such a big synagogue.

He is planning a congregational trip to Israel this fall which, as it turns out, would likely be the congregation's final communal activity. So far, 13 people have signed up.

David Tuck, an Auschwitz survivor who joined the synagogue about a dozen years ago, said he saw the writing on the wall.

"I am upset. Anything that's closing after 50 years, that's wrong," he said. "But that's life. I'm going to join some place and I'm going to continue belonging."

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