Sunday, October 30, 2011

Congregation Beit Kodesh

It's not uncommon for a rabbi to write a eulogy for a human being, but writing a eulogy for a synagogue is fortunately not very common. Nevertheless, I'd like to express my sincere sadness that a local Conservative congregation is closing its doors today.

Yesterday marked the final Shabbat for Congregation Beit Kodesh, a small Conservative synagogue in Livonia, Michigan that began in 1958. As if this wasn't already a sad weekend for the families of Congregation Beit Kodesh, news has circulated today that Cantor David Gutman, their beloved cantor emeritus has passed away. For several years after Beit Kodesh had retained its final full-time rabbi, Cantor Gutman held the congregation together and led all prayer services including the High Holidays.

At the end of the summer in 2005 while I was working as the associate director at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor, I was contacted by the leaders of Beit Kodesh who invited me to meet with them in the synagogue's library. The small group of long-time members explained the history of the congregation to me and their concern that with dwindling membership numbers they wouldn't be able to keep their doors open much longer. Their building was owned by the Jewish Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit and they ran a small Sunday school program. They asked me if I would be willing to be their rabbinic adviser, serving as a consultant when questions came up, helping to raise some much needed funding in the community, and also providing direction to the Sunday School director. I wasn't about to let a synagogue go out of business if I could help and so I agreed.

For the next three years (in my spare time) I wrote newsletter articles for the synagogue bulletin, taught the Sunday School families at holiday events, and helped promote the congregation in the community. The highlights during that time were a front-page story in the Detroit Jewish News and the renovation of the congregation's sanctuary. In December 2008 I sent out a letter to my own contacts in the community explaining that this small congregation was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, but would soon have to close its doors because of financial reasons. Close to $10,000 trickled in to help Beit Kodesh stay alive for a little longer.

Finally, this month the congregation's leaders recognized it was time to close. As I told the Detroit Jewish News, "The fact that this small congregation managed to keep its doors open as long as it did is a success story. That they eked out another five years makes them 'The Little Shul that Could.'"

These days it's not unusual for small Conservative synagogues to either close or merge with other congregations. The national trend is a response to the growth of Conservative synagogues during the expansion years and today's difficult economic conditions. For a dwindling Conservative Jewish population here in Metro Detroit, there are too many congregations and they can't support themselves as their membership rolls decline. The Beit Kodesh leadership should be proud of themselves for sticking around as long as they did in an area without a lot of Jewish people from which to draw.

The men and women of Congregation Beit Kodesh of Livonia, Michigan should be commended for their hard work in maintaining a Jewish presence in an area of Metro Detroit that hasn't had a large Jewish population for many decades. It is sad whenever a synagogue closes, but Am Yisrael Chai... the Jewish people endures.


Anonymous said...

Conservative shuls are closing by and large because except in certain small demographics they are irrelevant. A vast majority of Conservative temple members have both a level of observance and a personal theological philosophy that is identical to Reform; they just happen to like a little more Hebrew in their "service." The main differences between Conservative and Reform and currently liturgical, not theological.

Anonymous said...

@ Anonymous 1 - I disagree that the primary difference between reform and conservative is liturgical.

Conservative Judaism is halachic Judaism (Normative Judaism) which derives it's essence from Torah both written and oral.

Reform Judaism is non-halachic Judaism which has a basis in Judaism but is not bound to hold the written or oral Torah as divine nor does it claim to follow the framework of religion established as normative Judaism.

For instance - A conservative rabbi would most certainly instruct congregants not to smoke on Shabbat if asked. While a reform rabbi would most probably find such an instruction as meaningless.

DeDe said...

Nice post Jason. I feel the pain of what has happened in Livonia...

It is sad when a shul closes, but on a high note a new conservative shul in metro Detroit opened its door in the last year. We are grateful for the oportunity we received to make this happen and we continue to work hard to maintain and grow as a congregation.

Davida Robinson

Rabbi Jason Miller said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rabbi Jason Miller said...

DeDe: You are correct. I've said it many times that B'nai Israel is a success story. It was not simple for it to transition away from Shaarey Zedek during a difficult economic period and when the Jewish population is in steady decline here in Detroit. I'm optimistic about B'nai Israel's future and will watch its growth closely.

rachel kapen said...

The Bnai Israel success story is a validation of the Hebrew adage: Ein davar ha'omed bifnay ha'ratzon- nothing stands against one's will, or likewise B.Z. Herzl's famous words: Im Tirtzu Ein Zo Agadah, which are quite apt today, Nov. 2, as we mark the 94th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration of 1917 which broght to the Declaration of Independence of Independence of May 14, 1948. In the former and later case, there were courageous and creative people who gave their all for an ideal they believed in.

Jonathan said...

Whenever a Conservative synagogue closes it always appears in the article that it was a demographics issue which in turn means its a fundraising issue. When will it happen that Conservative leadership can see when their buildings fail that it is Conservative halacha that causes Conservative Judaism to fail.

Murray Zeidman said...

As someone who grew up in the neighborhood near the shul, I was saddended when I passed by it the other day and noticed that it was closed. I grew up in that building between the United Hebrew Schools, remember them?, that used to be there and the Sabbaths and holidays that I went and helped make a minyan. I still remember when the shul used to be at 6 Mile and Middlebelt.

stufried said...

I live in 6 & Newburgh and tried Beit Kodesh. After I left, I paid dues for another ten years because I knew they were in bad straights.

The problem with the synagogue is that it was a small town synagogue directly across the 8 Mile border for a large Jewish community.

If you go to a synagogue in say Marquette Michigan, you'll find a tight community but a spectrum of beliefs under one roof. You do that out of necessity because you are not going to find a place that matches your beliefs exactly that you can commute to.

Beit Kodesh had ties to the older conservative path when the Jewish community was moving to either Livonia or Oak Park. Livonia lost. The other group of Jews in Livonia were people like me interfaith relationships and probably seeking a more reformed experience where there was enough English for the other spouse and a feeling of inclusiveness that made them feel not like a complete outsider.

The people were warm but the services in many ways were more conservative than Shaarey Zedek. What finally drove me out the door was the sermon given on one of the more major holidays that pushed the old saw that the Sabbath was the most important holiday of the year and if you couldn't be bothered to regularly attend it, you might as well give up. Well, that is precisely what I did.

This is the time of the year when we all make commitments like going back to the gym. I have recommitted to that. I have a coworker who is telling me that if I only go to the gym three times a week, I might as well might not go. The statement actually reminded me of the Bit Kodesh sermon a number of years ago.

Northridge Church at North Territorial and M14 gets blasted by a number of Christians because it does things like having coffee which people can take to their pews. A "church is not a coffee bar." Reformed congregations may be diluted Judaism in the eyes of some, but it make Judaism approachable. While Detroit has a lower intermarriage rate than most cities, the national average is at 48%:

I think we need to be more inclusive, particularly in areas where the Jewish population is lower per capita.

Stuart Friedman