|Beth Tikvah congregants vote to sell their building to Torah Links, then rent back space. Howie Cohn|
Faced with dwindling membership and finances, the congregants of the Conservative Cong. Beth Tikvah-The New Milford Jewish Center voted unanimously last week to sell its building to an Orthodox outreach organization and share the space.
The membership numbers are down to 161 units, which include families and singles. One student enrolled in Beth Tikvah’s Hebrew school last year, and this year it was nonexistent. The congregation has been looking for a solution to its financial struggles for some time and had considered selling the building altogether and moving to a smaller location. Indeed, it had been on the verge of an agreement to use space in the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, also in New Milford, and sell the building to a church, which had made a very generous offer, said the synagogue’s president, Bob Nesoff. Ultimately, the shul’s leadership decided against the move.
“The board felt we’d rather take less and sell it to a Jewish organization, so it remains a Jewish facility,” Nesoff said.
Beth Tikvah began with a small group from New Milford meeting in the borough hall in the 1950s. At that time the Jewish population in the borough was quickly growing. But it was outpaced by the influx of younger Jews in neighboring Teaneck, and the New Milford Jewish population stagnated and became increasingly older, Nesoff said.
“A lot of young Jewish families are simply not affiliating,” he said. “The Orthodox are able to bring in a lot of young families. In this area, we found the Conservatives are not doing it as well, as evidenced by the number of shuls strongly urging us to merge with them.”
|Rabbi Cantor Steve Blane, formerly of Beth Tikvah, leads High Holiday services in his backyard for a new chavurah. Courtesy Steve Blane|
The congregation had received “very generous” offers from three other area Conservative synagogues to merge, Nesoff said. A merger, though, would have meant the official end of Beth Tikvah-The New Milford Jewish Center, in favor of a new entity.
“What we were looking to do was maintain our family,” Nesoff said. “That was a big thing for me and a big thing for our members.”
The board entered discussions with Torah Links, which has five branches in this state, early last month and soon reached an agreement to sell the building for $1.25 million. Once the contract is finalized – which Nesoff hopes will be within no more than 90 days – Beth Tikvah will rent back space in there for 10 years, with a five-year renewal option. The congregation will pay $4,000 a month and have use of the main sanctuary for Shabbat and holidays, as well as the auditorium for kiddushes and onegs. Beth Tikvah will still be able to put up a sukkah on the grounds and can leave its close to 3,000 plaques hanging on the walls of the building.
“They have been very, very reasonable and accommodating on all of these things,” Nesoff said of Torah Links. “They have been a pleasure to work with.”
The major noticeable change to the exterior of the building will be when Beth Tikvah’s sign in front of the building is moved to make room for a Torah Links sign.
Torah Links runs weekly classes and events that can draw up to 150 people. Its goal is to show how traditional Judaism can be applied in the 21st century, said Rabbi Yitzchok Weinberger, director of Torah Links in North Jersey.
While Torah Links has been holding its programs at various locations, a new home will give organizers “a base” with “a lot more opportunities to run programs at our own schedule,” Weinberger said.
Though Torah Links is an Orthodox organization, the group’s mission is to work with the Jewish community at large across all denominations, he added. Weinberger does not foresee any conflict arising from sharing a space with a Conservative synagogue.
“We’re looking forward to having a good, neighborly relationship with them,” he said.
Nesoff echoed Weinberger and dismissed any concerns about conflicting philosophies.
“Torah Links, in all of our dealings, has been very respectful of what we are,” he said. “They push Judaism but not their point of view for it.”
As Beth Tikvah finds new life, its spiritual leader of three years, Rabbi Cantor Steve Blane, has embarked on a different journey. He left the synagogue in July and has set up a chavurah, Sim Shalom, at his Haworth home. High Holiday services drew more than 100 people to the large tent in his backyard. Sim Shalom, he said, has garnered a lot of interest but he is not certain what will come of it. He may try to set up monthly meetings. What he is certain of, though, is that Sim Shalom will be an alternative to the typical synagogue experience.
Though Blane used a Conservative prayerbook for the High Holiday services, they included guitar music and more modern melodies, such as those of Leonard Cohen. The liturgy pulled from all the movements and transcended any one. The chavurah is an opportunity for Jews disillusioned with synagogue politics to connect, Blane said, emphasizing that it is only one of many solutions.
“This is an answer for modern liberal Jews, affiliated or unaffiliated,” he said. “There is another way and it is beautiful.”