Teaneck loses a Reform shul as Beth Am holds last service

Building bought by Orthodox congregation Shaarei Tefillah

Shavuot was bittersweet for Cong. Beth Am, a Reform synagogue in Teaneck that never wanted to grow too big, but after 47 years grew too small to continue. Last Tuesday night the congregation held its last communal dinner and its last service, celebrating the festival while calling up memories, saying goodbye to old friends, and reuniting with former members and grown children of members who returned for the occasion.

“It was very heartbreaking,” said Phyllis Betancourt, a member for 20 years. “Boxes of Kleenex were being handed back and forth. We all shared tears.”

Beth Am’s 26 member-families are dispersing to three area Reform synagogues: Temple Emeth in Teaneck, Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, and Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia. Each congregation is receiving one of Beth Am’s three Torah scrolls, and at the conclusion of the Shavuot service the scrolls were removed from the ark and escorted from the building.

Temple Sinai of Bergen County receives a Torah from Teaneck’s Beth Am. Michele Harris, chair of Temple Sinai’s transition committee, and Sheldon Burnston, Beth Am’s president, are pictured. Ophelia A. Yudkoff

Three nights later, Temples Emeth and Sinai welcomed the former members of Beth Am in special ceremonies. Adas Emuno is holding its ceremony tonight.

Before the Temple Emeth service, Beth Am’s president, Sheldon Burnston, discussed the music with Temple Emeth Cantor Ellen Tilem. “She incorporated a lot of the melodies that were our standard melodies into the service,” he said.

Burnston, along with Beth Am’s Rabbi Harvey Rosenfeld, carried the Torah down the center aisle of Temple Emeth’s sanctuary up to the bimah, with their fellow Beth Am congregants following behind.

“As it turned out, there were spaces for seven sifrei Torah in the ark. Ours made the seventh and filled the spot. The symbolism was quite lovely,” Burnston said.

At the Temple Sinai welcoming ceremony, which Burnston and Rosenfeld also attended, Rabbi Jordan Millstein used the metaphor of a marriage to describe the union of the two congregations.

“Rabbi Rosenfeld took the Torah from me, and he passed it to each Beth Am congregant to touch. Then they replaced the Torah cover with one similar to the others they used at Sinai and placed it into their ark,” said Burnston.

The three Reform congregations will receive the proceeds of the sale of Beth Am’s building, in proportion to the number of members joining each shul. Burnston said that 15 families moved to Temple Sinai, 11 families to Temple Emeth, and two to Adas Emuno.

In its last formal membership meeting last month, the congregation approved the sale of its building to Cong. Shaarei Tefillah, an Orthodox synagogue which has been meeting a couple of blocks away.

“We are bursting at the seams and need space for all of our members,” said Mark “Mendy” Schwartz, the shul’s president. The 10-year-old congregation started out as a neighborhood minyan meeting in a member’s house and now boasts nearly 100 member-families.

Schwartz said his congregation has been prioritizing possible renovations to the building, which will likely include “modernizing the sanctuary to accommodate an Orthodox minyan, fixing up the classrooms for our children to have a space for learning and prayer, and cosmetic upgrades to the social hall and kitchen.”

If all goes well, he said, Shaarei Tefillah will hold its inaugural services in its new building on Rosh HaShanah.

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