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May 17, 2013

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/ HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, MAY 17, 2013 CAttkson 0TA)--The Jews of Corpus Christi knewadecade ago they had to act fast to save their two synagogues. With at most 1,000 Jews left in the Texas town and only 60 families making up its membership, the 60-year ld Conservative wasinshakyfinan- cial shape. So in 2005, B'nai Israel Synagogue mergedwith Tenlp~e Beth El, a Reform shul, to form Congregation Beth Israel, combining customs and sharing sacred spaces to preserve Jewish life in an area that saw its heyday around World War II. The combined synagogue, andasmall but growing num- ber of others like it, makes a concerted effort to be inclu- sive despite denominational differences in liturgy and the- ology. Friday night services are tailored to Reform-minded members, while Saturday morning is conducted in the more traditional Conserva- tive style, according to Ken- ueth Roseman, Beth Israel's Reform-ordained rabbi. Families marking a bar or bat~can choosewhich da3' and denomination they want for their celebration. Members even used furnish- ings fromthe old Conservative synagogue in a small chapel and put up some of the old buildings stained glass in Karen Phillippi Members of the Jewish community in Canton, Ohio, celebrate the dedication of a new building housing the local federation and two synagogues, July 12, 2012. the new congregation's social hall. "It's not perfect," said Rose- man, "but it works." Across the country, scores of synagogues have overcome denominational differences to merge formally, share space or otherwise collaborate, often due to financial hardships wrought by shrinking Jewish populations. Shifting demo- graphics and a challenging economic environment have led synagogues to consider remedies that previously were unthinkable, said Rabbi David Fine, the rabbinic director of the Union for Reform Juda- ism's small congregations network. "Many congregations worked hard for years to distinguish themselves," Fine said. "It wasn't so much 'who are we' but 'who are we not?'--looking at the other place across town. Now it's more 'what do we have in common?'" That kind of thinking was evident in the merger of the Reform Temple Beth El with Congregation Eilat, a Conser- vative synagogue in Southern California thatwas struggling with a significantly reduced membership. In 2010, the congregations merged for- mally with about 80 percent of Eilat's 120 families join- ing the 650-family Beth El. Eilat members were granted board positions, one of Beth El's kitchens was brought up to Conservative kosher standards and differences on issues such as music on Shabbat and patrilineal de- scent were followed in each denomination's services. Today, the congregation's three rabbis--two Reform and one Conservative--run educational programming for the congregation at large and, on the High Holidays, deliver sermons to both the Reform and Conservative services. "I think the success of it is measured by the fact that the lines are totally blurred now," Welland said. "We're one congregation; we're one community." Some synagogues in finan- cial straits have stopped one step short of a full merger, opting to share facilities revamped for the needs of communities with a range of practices and beliefs. In Canton, Ohio, Jewish leaders worried about a de- clining population sold the Reform Temple Israel and put the local Jewish community center facility on the market, according to Ed Buxbaum, CEO of the Canton Jewish Community Federation and a former president of the Reform synagogue. Last year, Temple Israel and the federa- tion, which had been housed at the JCC, moved into the last remainingsynagogue in town, a Conservative congregation, which renovated its building to meet the needs of all three. The institutions now split the bills equally and hold equal shares of a nonprofit corporation set up to oversee the facility. "It was not easy. It's very difficult for people who have worshiped in a single facil- ity for 55 years and whose families have had all their lifecycle services and every- thing" there, Buxbaum said. "Change is difficult." Both Canton and Corpus Christi have received inqui- ries from other communi- ties contemplating similar moves. Corpus Christi has even produced a monograph detailing its merger. But not all such collaborations have resulted from declining demographics. After Hurricane Katrina dumped 10 feet of water on New Orleans' Congregation Beth Israel, the Modern Or- thodox congregation found refuge in a nearby Reform temple that had escaped the worst of the storm. Beth Israel shared a building with Congregation Gates of Prayer for several years before moving out--to a building constructed next door on land purchased from the Reform synagogue. The congregations still share a playground. "It's all about relation- ships," said Uri Topolosky, Beth Israel's rabbi. "It's all about a community that cared about itself, cared about each other and wanted to see a good thing happen." By Stewart Ain New York Jewish Week ff it's a sign of the times, boy, is it a doozy. The sign at the entrance to Temple Beth Shalom of Smithtown, N.Y., at first glance, seems standard- issue; it stands about six feet high, with white letters (announcing the times of ser- vices) on a black background inside a glass frame. But look again, and the bottom part of the sign holds a revelation, so to speak. JCL," the sign announces in bright colors, an orange flame inside the curve of the C -- Jesus Christ Lives. And underneath that the Spanish version: Ministerio Jesuchristo Vive, a fast- growing Evangelical Chris- tian church. Welcome to one of the more unique mergers in Jewish congregation life, one that has saved (if we can use that word) a dying Conservative synagogue in Suffolk County and created, at least for the moment, a powerful symbolofinterfaith cooperation. In a bid to stay alive and boost its flagging fortunes, Temple Beth Sholom, a 57-year-old Conservative congRgation, is selling its building to the nondenomi- national Ministerio Jesucris- to we, borne to hundreds of Spanish-speaking families. Under the arrangement, the temple will continue to use the building rent-free for at least the next five years and none of its religious items or memorial plaques will be distmbed. Indeed, the church pastor, Raymond Jaquez, insisted that eye.thing remain in- tact and even asked that a lock and alarm be placed on the ark to ensure the safety of the Torah scrolls inside. As he entered the syna- gogue's front doors one day last week, Pastor Jaquez's eyes lit up when he saw the Tree of Life and Hebrew in- scriptions on the walls, the stained glass windows with a Star of David, and a saved- from-the Holocaust Torah in a case outside the sanctuary. "We believe God is bring- ing us here to work together with our brother Jews," he said. "Our goal is to help the growth of the Jewish com- munity. We are not here to convert them." Pastor Jaquez then walked down the steps to the lower level of the building, where there were scores of empty classrooms. During Temple Beth Sholom's heyday when it is said to have had a membership of 500 families, those classrooms had been filled with students. But declining membership and a financial crisis forced the Hebrew school, with just a handful of students, to close last year when it couldn't pay the teachers. To avert foreclo- sure, a congregant assumed the mortgage. "We want Jewish children to come to this synagogue again," Pastor Jaquez said. "I attended one of the Saturday morning services, and it was so powerful." Temple Beth Sholom's spiritual leader for the past three years, Rabbi Jonathan Waxman, said the building's sale to the church "gives the congregation a lifeline." "There is a clause in the contract that says that for several years this current arrangement continues," he said. "During this time, the congregation can figure out how to revive itself. It now has breathing space and money in the bank, because the selling price will more than pay the debts, including the mortgage." The sale price of the build- ing is $1.775 million, accord- ing to several congregants. RabbiWaxman pointed out that the congregation had been struggling financially for several years and had "about a dozen suitors who had looked at the building, including several church groups, a Muslim group and Chabad." But Pastor Jaquez's offer was not only higher than the others; it allowed the congregation to keep the rabbi's parsonage and some property around it, and gave the congregation free use of the building for Shabbat and holiday services. In fact, Pastor Jaquez said he moved his normal Friday night service to Wednesday night to permit Temple Beth Sholom to continue with its Friday night and Saturday morning services. "There are all sorts of possibilities down the road," Waxman said. "For the next few years, a core group will keep things going rent-free." He said the sale would allow him to keep his of- rice, the synagogue's main office, storage space and a classroom for meetings. Although the church will now have the synagogue's catering hall and kitchen, the synagogue is to keep the small kitchen that had been used by the Hebrew school in order to continue having a kosher kitchen. Richard Skolnik, presi- dent of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said he believes that synagogues forced to downsize "will continue to explore different alternatives." "We have many variations of this happening," he said in an email. "Conservative synagogues are merging with Reform synagogues and moving into other types of houses of worship such as a church, which is nothing new. B'nai Jeshurun in New York City has been [holding worship services] in a church for many years. Change is upon us, and as the need exists for smarter facilities, arrangements will be made by the leadership of the ke- hillot [communities]." Rabbi Steven Wernick, United Synagogue's execu- tive vice president and CEO, said it is "too early to tell" whether this sort of church outreach to faltering syna- gogues might be a paradigm for the future. But he said it resembles what he has found on some college campuses: an interfaith chapel. "The campuses have a flourishing religious life, and people learn how to get along," he said. "They do programs that are synergetic and separate when separate is necessary for expression of the faith. It is a paradigm that works on some college campuses; whether it can make the transition remains to be seen. But I do know that real estate is less important today than relationships." Glenda Smith, a past presi- dent of Beth Shalom, said the congregation attracted about 78 families for the High Holy Days last year. Annual dues are $500 per family, and she would like to see dues remain at that amount next year. Before the recession of 2008, dues had been $1,800. "The plan is that High Holy Day services will again be held in the sanctuary, andwe are encouraging members to stick with us and bring their friends," Smith said. Another longtime con- gregant, Laurie Passalaqua, said Jaquez "has been beyond gracious to try to keep us in his facility. He even asked me to provide the next five years of dates--Shabbat and holidays--when the temple would want to use the sanc- tuary so that he would not do something that would interfere with them." She noted that on March 4 the congregation voted 64-1 in favor of the sale to Jaquez's church, "because if this did not happen, we would have ended up with nothing." Unlike others who were in- terested in buying the build- ing, Passalaqua explained, "the church is giving us a chance to grow and is not closing us down." Temple Beth Sholom will remain affiliated with the United Synagogue of Con- servative Judaism, she said. Jaquez held his first service at the building last month. Passalaqua said she attended and that the sanctuary was filled with about 550 parish- ioners. The following week, she said, she passed by the building and "the lot was filled and cars were parked on the side streets, which was more than the firstweek. So it's growing rapidly, and that's wonderful." Jaquez said his congrega- tion, which was founded eight years ago, has a mem- bership of between 600 and 800 families. About 75 percent are from the United States--including Puerto Rico--and the rest are im- migrants from Central and South America. Since its founding, Jaquez said his congregation has had to relocate "more than five times" to accommodate his growing number of followers. Looking at the outside of the synagogue, he marveled at its size. "We're now in a building with 22,300 square feet in Central Islip," Jaquez said. "This is 78,000 square feet." "I see a lot of synagogues closing, and God said to me, 'Reach out to them and pre- serve their synagogue,'" he said minutes later. "We believe so much in the Bible--the Old and New Testament-- and believe the promise that God gave to Abraham in which he said that whoever blesses you will be blessed. Our background comes from Israel--we believe in only one God--the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob." He said that although he also believes that Jesus Christ was the messiah, his church does not focus on the cross. Thus, the only cross evident at its service is one in a corner of a flag the church brings to the stage--opposite the Israeli flag Temple Beth Sholom has kept there. The church flag is removed when the service is completed. "We will not touch any- thing [of theirs]," Jaquez emphasized. "We understand the sacrifice the founders of this synagogue made. They put all their faith into this investment, and we appreci- ate what they did and want to preserve it. "Our goal is to promote Judaism and to try to bring Jewish families to their ser- vice. We don't want to buy out synagogues, but rather help them pay their bills .... We want to be sure to preserve the synagogue so they can teach their children for the next generation. We don't want them to leave--we want them to stay here forever, not pay us anything and bless them." Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, from which this article was reprinted by permission. You may reach Ain at