The sanctuary at Cong. Sons of Israel in Leonia was dark last Shabbat; the building remained locked and empty. The Conservative shul’s 45 members had already bid farewell to the synagogue during Shabbat morning services on Oct. 2, the last for the 83-year-old congregation.
“It was a very beautiful and spiritually uplifting morning,” said Rabbi Hillel Gold. “Everybody there understood the significance of the day. We all found it a very meaningful way to complete services there at 150 Grand Avenue.”
Sons of Israel was created in 1927 in Palisades Park and moved to the Leonia building in 1964. At its height during the 1970s and ’80s, the synagogue had 200 member-families, but changing demographics in Bergen County caused those numbers to dwindle to fewer than 50 member-families, coming from Hackensack, Ridgefield, Teaneck, and Fort Lee. Ben Porat Yosef, an Orthodox day school that rented most of Sons of Israel, left the synagogue for Paramus in 2008 after six years there.
Now, after five years of discussions on how to save the synagogue despite its dwindling membership, the board has decided to pursue merger discussions with Cong. Gesher Shalom/the Jewish Center of Fort Lee. Negotiations are continuing, but neither congregation has voted yet, said Sons of Israel president Sally Seymour.
“We’re just running out of funds to keep ourselves going,” she told The Jewish Standard. “We had a rental and when they left we reached a point where even with renting a lot of our building we weren’t able to stay open.”
Ben Porat Yosef used most of the building during its time in Leonia, and the synagogue could not find another tenant that would use that much space, Seymour said.
Sons of Israel will continue to pay salaries to its staff and rabbi to fulfill their contracts, Seymour said, but she would not comment as to how, if at all, Gold’s position would come into the merger discussions.
The rabbi did not comment on his future, but praised the synagogue’s leadership for having kept the shul going.
“There was always a spirit of togetherness,” he said. “I always called this the little engine that could. We always managed.”
“It’s been a wonderful congregation,” Seymour said. “It’s been like family. It’s small and intimate and very haimish. We’ve had some really good services and celebrations and dinners, and it’s been very meaningful.”
Gold also described the synagogue as haimish, adding that while the congregation has not had the same numbers as other shuls, it has had a “warm” environment.
“It’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience, both for myself and for my family,” said the rabbi, who has been with the synagogue for five years. “It was a group of people that enjoyed davening together, enjoyed learning, and other social interactions as well.”
The board expects to close on the building in two weeks with Bethel Central Church of Ridgefield. The synagogue’s prayer books, Torahs, and other religious items will go into storage until a merger is completed.
Calls to the JCC of Fort Lee were not returned by press time.
Sons of Israel is the latest Bergen County synagogue to entertain merger talks. Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn, a Reform synagogue, merged with Temple Sholom in River Edge last year to become Temple Avodat Shalom. Teaneck’s Temple Beth Am, a Reform synagogue, announced earlier this year that it is looking to merge with another area Reform synagogue. Both Avoda and Beth Am cited changing demographics, and Seymour pointed to the difficulty in attracting younger members. Gold offered his hope that demographics will not topple any other area synagogues.
“I just hope and pray for the congregations that are now in Bergen County that everybody thrives and Yiddishkeit as a whole can continue to flourish in the county,” Gold said. “That’s what I hope for Judaism and Conservative Judaism in Bergen County.”