Small Congregations: An End Plan—On Your Terms
By Jane L. Levere


Temple B'nai Israel in Butte,
Montana will be determining the future
of its 1903 Moorish building.
Photograph by Zach Watson Rice
 

If a congregation is nearing the end of its lifecycle and may no longer be viable, what happens to a its building, Torah scrolls, prayer books, and cemetery? The Jewish Community Legacy Project (JCLP) has partnered with the Union for Reform Judaism to help congregations plan for this possibility.

Created by David Sarnat (a Jewish community professional in Atlanta) and funded by the Atlanta-based Marcus Foundation (established by Bernard Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot), JCLP matches up small, struggling congregations with larger, thriving organizations that can assist them with the transfer or sale of synagogue property, cemetery maintenance, preservation of their archives, and other needs. The URJ has invited Sarnat to appear on a URJ Biennial panel along with representatives of Reform congregations the project has assisted. Sarnat will also be available for individual consultations at the December 14-18 convention outside Washington, DC. (For more information, visit urj.org/biennial.)

One of the first Reform congregations to benefit from JCLP expertise is Temple Sinai in Sumter, South Carolina, which dates back to 1891. Today, the majority of its 35 members are in their 70s and 80s, and some are in their 90s.

Roger Ackerman, an active member of Temple Sinai, remembers what the congregation was like when he arrived in Sumter in 1965: “We had a full time rabbi, approximately 175 members, a religious school, an active youth group, Sisterhood, and Men’s Club. We had members from five small towns located near us.” Today, he says, “Our Sisterhood is still active but small. The rest (youth group, religious school, Men’s Club, full time rabbi) are no longer a part of our activities.”

Ackerman proposed that the congregation create a “living will, which could help the congregation prolong its life and make provisions for temple properties in the event that Temple Sinai ceases to exist.” Initially, the idea met resistance, but eventually the community came to realize the need for a contingency plan. Working with JCLP, Temple Sinai signed an agreement that empowers the Charleston Jewish Federation to maintain the congregation’s cemetery when it can no longer do so. The temple’s leaders are exploring other partnerships as well.

“I find it sad that we’re faced with this, but it’s a reality; you can’t change it,” Ackerman says. “There are many, many changes we face in life, and this is just one of them.”

The JCLP is also working with Sinai Temple, a Reform congregation founded in Marion, Indiana, in 1924 that has seen its membership decline from 100 families in its heyday to 19 families today. Stan Steiner, a retired optician and active Sinai Temple member for more than three decades, reports that “David Sarnat has helped us set up what we want to do, where things will go, and who will take care of the cemetery…as there’s a very good chance we will close in May of next year. I’d rather it not close, but if there isn’t support, if people aren’t willing to help, we will have no choice.”

Rabbi David Fine, URJ senior consultant-congregational systems, introduced Temple B’nai Israel in Butte, Montana to JCLP. “[The introduction] came at a time when we were receptive to the notion of planning our future,” says longtime member Janet Cornish, noting that B’nai Israel, established in the 1890s, used to have 100 member families; membership is now down to 15.

The remaining congregants are now cleaning out their synagogue’s vestry, selling pianos, and the like—what Cornish, a community development consultant, calls “the easiest things.” Next, they must determine the future of their synagogue’s building, a 1903 Moorish structure. Maintenance of the congregation’s cemetery will not be an issue; an adjacent Christian cemetery has been contracted to provide perpetual care.

While making these decisions is painful—as URJ’s Senior Vice President Rabbi Daniel Freelander says, “Nobody likes to face his or her own eventual mortality”—Union representatives urge small, shrinking congregations to take the necessary steps to plan their future, and thereby create a legacy. “Otherwise,” cautions Rabbi Freelander, “decisions are liable to be made by people who have no emotional attachment to your sacred community. Congregations now have an opportunity to take control of their future. And working with JCLP is a great way to begin.”

Jane L. Levere is a New York-based freelance writer who contributes to the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, among other publications.

Union for Reform Judaism.