Cong. Beth Israel of Northern Valley stands empty at the corner of North Washington and East Central avenues in Bergenfield, the victim of changing times and demographics.
A for-sale sign in front of the building means its days of glory are gone. The parking spaces in the back of the building, reserved for the rabbi, the office manager, and the cantor, will have new occupants. A swing set, on a small backyard, sits undisturbed. A Korean congregation is expected to move in soon.
At a meeting on May ‘9, Beth Israel’s general membership approved, by a 94 percent majority, a merger with Cong. Beth Sholom of Teaneck. Both synagogues are affiliated with the Conservative movement.
But the "human merger" began much before the legal one.
When Beth Israel shut down on June ‘9 of last year, Beth Sholom invited the members of the Bergenfield synagogue to attend services there and join for a nominal fee, said Harman Grossman, Beth Sholom’s chairman of the board.
"We are interested in attracting the community," he added.
On June ‘5, Beth Sholom’s board will vote on the merger, but it is just a formality, Grossman said, adding that that he is confident the vote will go through.
For Beth Sholom, Grossman said, the most important part of the merger is to create "a single community, and we are interested in increasing our membership and we are happy to provide a home for the people from Beth Israel."
Approximately 4’0 families belong to Beth Sholom, including 1’5 people from Beth Israel who joined last year, said Grossman.
The merger presented no difficulties, according to Grossman, and said that an example of how the two congregations have integrated is that Mel Machanic, the last president of Beth Israel, was honored along with three Beth Sholom couples at the latter’s gala dinner on June 5.
Talks about the merger began in November of ‘006 when Machanic and Grossman were introduced by Harvey Rosen, president of the New Jersey Region of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, at the organization’s convention.
"Membership numbers [at Beth Israel] were down, and we exchanged ideas and thought it would be beneficial if we joined together," said Machanic.
Although the synagogue tried to look for new members over the years, it never reached the numbers it had in the 1950s and 1960s, he added.
"The synagogue grew post-World War II and it was flourishing community," Machanic recalled. "More than 300 kids were enrolled in the [synagogue’s] Hebrew school."
The age of the members had also become an issue in the last few years as the majority was "well over 65. We were the victim of demographics," he added. At the time of the closing, the synagogue had about 150 members.
Michael Cardone, a Realtor with David Hirschman Realty of Paramus, said the 16,’00-square foot property was sold for $3,350,000 to a Ridgefield Park Korean congregation and expects the transaction to be completed in August. The property also includes the custodian’s house, right next door to the synagogue.
"The neighborhood is zoned for houses of worship, so it will be easy for them," Machanic said.
Across the street from Beth Israel is the All Saints Church and a block north is Saint Matthew’s Lutheran Church. Four blocks south is a Korean congregation, the New Jersey Manna Church.
Machanic, who joined the synagogue in 1966, said the merger is a good fit, as there are a lot of similarities between Beth Sholom and Beth Israel as well as a history of cooperation.
Beth Israel was established in 19’7 as the Bergenfield-Dumont Jewish Center. The congregation erected a building in 1948, which was expanded in 1955 but destroyed in a fire in 1984. In 1987, the new structure was "built from ashes," as a plaque at the entrance testifies. The synagogue changed its name to Cong. Beth Israel of Northern Valley in 1994 to reflect the surrounding Northern Valley towns Closter, Cresskill, Demarest, Haworth, and Tenafly where many of the members lived, according to its Website.
For Machanic, the happiest moments during his four decades at the synagogues were the bar mitzvah of his two sons and the bat mitzvah of his daughter.
The saddest? "The realization I came to when I took the presidency for the first time [from 1998 to ‘000] that we couldn’t continue. We reached the point when we just couldn’t keep the daily minyan going. We were down to the last 10."