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One Door Closes, Another Opens Up

January 19, 2006 By:
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Congregation Beth Chaim's sanctuary was packed with members embracing one another and offering consolation for a collective loss. A few even wept openly, knowing that this was probably the last time the congregation would be gathered together in the nearly 50-year-old building.

"We don't have any alternative. We are out of money," Michael Bittman, Beth Chaim's president, had said moments earlier during the Feasterville congregation's Jan. 11 meeting.

Members had voted by an overwhelming margin to close the place that's home to some 165 families. They also agreed to a merger with Shaare Shamayim-Beth Judah-Beth Tefilath Israel-Rodeph Zedek, a Conservative synagogue roughly four miles southwest of Feasterville in Northeast Philadelphia. The final entity will be known simply as the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim.

Various explanations for Beth Chaim's rapid decline in membership and eventual demise were offered, ranging from demographics to continued fallout from a relatively recent change in rabbinic leadership. But whatever the reasons, membership has dropped by nearly half in the last few years.

"After the High Holidays, when our membership count was finalized, we knew we had a very drastic financial situation on our hands," said Bittman in an interview after the meeting.

He added that the congregation hadn't been able to make a mortgage payment in months, and had roughly $2,000 left in its bank account. He said that they needed to move quickly to close down the operations, even before the merger became official.

So Beth Chaim's final Shabbat service was held just two days after the meeting - on Friday, Jan. 13, of all days. Then, on Sunday, Beth Chaim's roughly 80 religious-school students reported for their first day of classes at Share Shamayim, which has about 480 member families.

Once the legal documents are drawn up and signed - which is expected to occur some time this week or next - the ownership of Beth Chaim's building will pass to Shaare Shamayim. The plan is to sell the property.

One Orthodox rabbi has already expressed an interest in buying it. Rabbi Solomon Isaacson, religious leader of Congregation Beth Solomon Suburban of Somerton in Northeast Philadelphia, said that he wants to bid on the building.

"We have a growing congregation, and many of our members live out in Bucks County," said Isaacson, adding that the large majority of his congregants are Russian-speaking Jews.

When Isaacson first learned of Beth Chaim's predicament, he immediately approached their executive board and offered to take over the building's mortgage and to pay Beth Chaim staff through the end of June; he even mentioned current congregants getting free membership for life.

The catch? Beth Chaim would have to become an Orthodox synagogue.

The executive board - which pursued merger talks with several Bucks County synagogues before settling on Shaare Shamayim - considered Isaacson's offer but rejected it, saying that the philosophical differences between Orthodoxy and Conservative Judaism, even at their traditional congregation, were just too great.

"We are disappointed," said Isaacson, who added that most of his own congregants are not fully Orthodox in practice. "There is no reason that this community should be left without a synagogue. Everything they have done should not disappear."

Bittman said he hopes the building will be sold to Isaacson, so that it remains a synagogue rather than become a church or be raised to the ground in favor of residential or retail space.

When Bittman told the congregation about Isaacson's offer and the board's response, the majority sat quietly in their seats; only a few lodged complaints.

After the vote to approve the merger was called and passed, Gunter Hauer - an 86-year-old founding member of Beth Chaim - said the emphasis should be on maintaining a religious community, and not necessarily in a particular place.

"I was Bar Mitzvahed in Berlin," he revealed. "The synagogue doesn't exist anymore - only a plaque is there. Does that mean that I can't live in another place?"

Where to Go? What to Do? 
Many at the meeting couldn't stop trying to figure out exactly how and why matters got to the point where the synagogue could no longer continue.

"It becomes very difficult for a congregation to sustain itself without support of a large number of Jews in close proximity to the synagogue," stated Rabbi Gerald Fox, who's been leading Beth Chaim for about a year-and-a-half, and isn't quite sure what to do next.

Shaare Shamayim recently hired an associate rabbi, Barry Dov Lerner. According to Bittman, Fox will not be retained.

"The greatest disappointment is that I won't be able to continue being the source of spiritual support for my congregation," said Fox.

A graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he was brought in to replace the Yeshiva University-educated Rabbi Maurice Novoseller - the only religious leader Beth Chaim ever had - who favored a traditional worship service, and remained adamant about having only men read from the Torah. Novoseller was present at the meeting and often spoke up, though it wasn't clear to attendees which course of action he actually supported.

Members said that Fox was brought in to help attract younger families to join the synagogue in a more religiously liberal, egalitarian direction.

Nonetheless, Bittman admitted that the hiring of Fox and the establishment of new ways were the impetus for 50 families to decide to worship elsewhere.

"I am not laying the blame at his feet," said Bittman. "He certainly worked very hard. The fact that more people didn't come and join is not necessarily his failure."

Shaare Shamayim has both a traditional worship service in its main sanctuary and an egalitarian one in the auditorium. Part of the merger plan entails moving Beth Chaim's bimah to the Shaare Shamayim auditorium, if it's architecturally feasible.

"We never want to see a synagogue close," said Jacques Lurie, Shaare Shamayim's executive director. "We surely want to do whatever we can for Jews who need a place to go."

"Everybody has been writing the obituary of Northeast Philadelphia," he added, referring to a spate of recent synagogue closures. "Now you have a suburban synagogue closing to come to Philadelphia."

 

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