When a synagogue shuts its doors, what happens to its windows?
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When a synagogue shuts its doors, what happens to its windows?

(And other questions about closure)

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For an ailing synagogue, merging with a healthier congregation is seldom Plan A.

“It’s something that develops over a period of years, because the first choice is to make what you have work,” said Mel Glantz, who was a long-time member of Cong. Beth Israel of Northern Valley in Bergenfield. “There’s a sense of failure when you’ve got to merge.”

Nevertheless, his synagogue merged with another Conservative congregation, Beth Sholom in Teaneck, in 2008. It was one of eight synagogue mergers in North Jersey over the past five years.

This year alone, Cong. Sons of Israel in Leonia merged with Cong. Gesher Shalom in Fort Lee, both Conservative. And in Teaneck, Cong. Beth Am divided its members and its assets among three other area Reform congregations.

Beth Israel’s name reflected an effort the congregation had made to restore the vigor it had in its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s. Founded in 1927 as the Bergenfield-Dumont Jewish Community Center, it put Northern Valley in its name in 1994, reflecting the fact that many of its members had moved to Closter and Demarest and Tenafly, and the hope that those areas would provide a pool of new congregants.

That proved insufficient to keep the synagogue vibrant. So did the move toward Saturday morning bat mitzvahs and other egalitarian practices after the retirement of its long-time Orthodox rabbi.

So what happens when a synagogue doesn’t think it can sustain itself?

Two years ago, the Synagogue Leadership Institute of what is now the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey convened 40 representatives from 14 synagogues who were interested in exploring collaboration or merger.

“I had them seated according to geography. I didn’t pay much attention to denomination,” said Judy Beck, who was then the director of SLI.

This first meeting evolved into four separate tracks for ongoing synagogue discussions, facilitated by the federation.

One dealt with financial collaboration and has since been folded into the Kehilla Partnership. A track dealing with joint programming led to other initiatives from SLI. The educational track evolved into discussions about creating a collaborative community Conservative Hebrew school.

And then there was the track about mergers.

“At first, it was almost like speed-dating,” said Lisa Harris Glass, the current SLI director. “Congregations who were maybe looking to merge were meeting with congregations who might be able to absorb them.

“The critical thing was that it was a safe way to explore it,” she said.

The dating led to the two mergers this year involving Beth Am and Sons of Israel.

Beck said that “some possible future mergers” are under discussion, but declined to give details. “We’ll see if they actually occur. They’re in the ether.”

Two Conservative congregations that got to know each other in these sessions – Temple Beth Sholom of Pascack Valley in Park Ridge and Cong. B’nai Israel in Emerson – decided that while they didn’t want to get married, they did want to be friends.

“It was an interesting outcome. They have been doing collaborative programming together,” said Beck, who continues to work with SLI. “They’ve shared picnics together, they’ve done things socially.”

Beck said mergers are very emotional.

“The congregation had a life. It had eons of kids who had come through it, people who shared many other lifecycle events in the congregations. When they close, congregations should have a way to continually memorialize themselves. They had a life, they did something valuable.

“One of the things I have really encouraged – and not always been successful at – is for congregations to set up an endowment to commemorate the history of that congregation,” she said.

Sons of Israel set up such an endowment, which will fund an annual scholar-in-residence program at Gesher Shalom.

Beth Israel moved its existing endowments, including one funding Holocaust programming and another funding children’s programming, over to Beth Sholom.

And it set aside a fund that will make contributions to local Jewish charities over a 10-year period “so the name Beth Israel at least is remembered every year,” said Melvin Machanic, who oversaw the merger as the congregation’s last president.

“The money is allotted by a committee made of past members of Beth Israel who are members of Beth Sholom. It’s one way we’re able to maintain an ongoing presence in the community,” he said.

All synagogues welcome new members. They help make the minyan, sit on the committees, and pay the dues. When they come as part of a synagogue merger, they also bring concrete assets. When the old congregation sells their building, that’s a lot of money for the new congregation.

Sons of Israel sold its building for more than $3 million; so did Beth Israel.

Beth Am allocated the money from its sale proportionally to the three congregations its members went to.

Sons of Israel brought 80 percent of the net proceeds to Gesher Shalom and allocated 20 percent as charitable gifts. The board decided how to allocate the money, with the final list approved by the membership as part of the merger agreement.

“We tried to pick a nice variety of organizations,” said Sally Seymour, president of Sons of Israel. (See box.)

“Several of these organizations have plaques up in our name now. If we go to Hadassah hospital, there’s something there. UJA will probably give us something to hang up at the congregation we’ve merged with,” she said.

Beck says that for a merger to be successful, “the organization looking to merge really can’t just die. They have to have some requirements from the merger, something they want to get at the end of the day, and they have to be very clear. The party that is going to merge into the other party should ask for something and get something that’s positive. It shouldn’t just be sucked up into the fabric of the new congregation without getting something in return.”

Some mergers result in changes in the new congregations’ services and policies. That’s particularly the case with interdenominational mergers, which have become increasingly common in smaller Jewish communities. Locally, however, Reform congregations have merged with Reform congregations and Conservative with Conservative.

As part of its merger, Beth Sholom agreed to treat the new members hailing from Beth Israel differently – not simply as brand-new members. They were exempt from building fund fees – they had, after all, brought the proceeds of a building along with them. They received discounted memberships for several years.

Past presidents of the congregation maintained their status as past presidents, and pro forma board members, in Beth Sholom.

But while finances can be calmly negotiated, what about items that have sentimental value?

Torah scrolls have both financial and sentimental value, in addition to their sacred character. As part of their mergers, members of Beth Am brought their scrolls to Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly and Temple Emeth in Teaneck, the two congregations that received the bulk of the Beth Am members.

When Cong. B’nai Israel in Fair Lawn merged with the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. Etz Chaim (the name reflected an earlier merger), the new entity became Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. Bnai Israel – and it added Bnai Israel’s five Torah scrolls to its collection.

“Yesterday, the ark was only half full,” Leonard Kaufmann, president of the Jewish Center, said at the 2006 ceremony marking the merger. “Today, it is full.”

When the Elmwood Park Jewish Center merged into Fair Lawn’s Temple Beth Sholom the following year, the Elmwood Park congregation donated one of its scrolls to a naval training base in Haifa.

In merger negotiations, even the details of where yahrzeit plaques end up are not left to chance.

The memorial plaques of relatives of Beth Israel members who joined Beth Sholom in Teaneck are in the main sanctuary; the remainder are elsewhere in the building. Some people took the plaques with them to other congregations.

But there’s not always enough wall space to go around.

Beth Sholom had no place for Beth Israel’s custom ark cover; it ended up in Temple Sinai in Tenafly.

And there was no room for the synagogue’s stained glass windows.

“The intention originally was to take the stained glass windows when we sold the building,” said Mel Glantz, a Beth Israel member who is now active at Beth Sholom. “Because of the cost, we couldn’t possibly do it.”

Looking back on the merger with a couple of years hindsight, Machanic said, “It’s like any marriage. You don’t learn about everything until you live together. But nothing ever comes up that’s serious. It really turned out to be a compatible association.”

Glass said that merging a synagogue is a brave step for long-time synagogue leaders.

“It’s a really difficult thing emotionally to have to do, to be the leadership that says this wonderful sustaining community, that so many people grew up in and love, is no longer able to sustain itself. That’s a very hard and brave thing for a leader to do,” she said.

It’s also a blessing for the leaders.

Glass quoted a synagogue leader, who had led her congregation into a merger, as saying, “When your whole Jewish experience is about figuring out how you’re going to make the next payroll, it’s time to find another way. I want to feed my soul.”

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