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

Local mergers reflect a national trend

 
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Bergen County’s synagogue mergers reflect a national trend, according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

The trend has several causes, he said, including the economic downturn and declining synagogue affiliation among Reform and Conservative Jews.

According to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the number of families affiliated with the movement’s synagogues in the Northeast dropped by 30 percent in the past decade.

Another factor in Conservative mergers are long-term changes in the movement. When the Conservative movement began building its suburban synagogues in the 1950s, Sarna said, “they assumed that there were members who walked, so you tended to have Conservative synagogues every couple of miles. Nowadays, you don’t make that assumption.”

That would explain why Fair Lawn, which encompasses 5.2 square miles, had four Conservative synagogues before mergers reduced them to two, one egalitarian and one traditional.

“In terms of the Reform movement, I think that the economic downturn hit the Reform movement particularly hard, as did the Great Depression, because for some Reform Jews, paying synagogue dues was a discretionary expense,” he said.

Sarna said synagogue mergers have been a constant in American Jewish history. A wave of mergers took place when Jews began moving to suburbia. Chicago’s KAM Isaiah Israel synagogue, famed for its location across the street from President Barack Obama’s former home, is the result of merger of several Reform congregations. “As that area of Chicago changed and the Jews moved out, all of them merged into one congregation,” Sarna said.

He believes that larger cultural trends herald more bad news for synagogue affiliation and continuing interest in mergers.

“We’ve gone a significant number of decades of having a religious revival, where much of the talk was about people becoming more religious. I think there’s growing evidence that that era has ended and in fact we’re seeing — as we did in the 1920s — a movement in the other direction, away from churches and synagogues. We’ve seen these cycles throughout American history,” he said.

 

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

 
 
 

Sons of Israel’s parting gifts

 

(And other questions about closure)

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.

 
 
 
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Scheherazade in Cresskill

Former Palmach, Palyam fighter talks about his adventures in Russia, Palestine, Egypt, and Brooklyn

So you walk into the big, airy, neat, well-furnished Cresskill apartment, full of pale winter sun, and it’s almost like walking into Scheherazade’s rooms.

Presiding over this comfortable, profoundly suburban setting, Shlomo Lev spins stories, one after the other, improbable but true, of times and places close enough to us for us to know they were real, but far enough away to be mythic nonetheless.

Mr. Lev is a small-boned, taut, wiry man, muscular still, even at 87. His close-cropped white hair, white mustache and carefully trimmed beard, and light eyes, his blue jeans and windbreaker make him look less like Shloime Levitsky, as he once was, and more like a retired British sailor about to head out to the pub with his mates in a 1950s movie.

So why is he showing you what looks like a very fancy pair of men’s underpants?

 

Past and future in Kosovo

In heart of Muslim province, Jewish remnant stakes its claim

PRISTINA, Kosovo — Boxing Club Prishtina is a squat building on a narrow street around the corner from the parliament in the heart of Kosovo’s capital city.

Around the corner, a popular Italian restaurant draws the young Western Europeans and Americans in button-down shirts and open-toed heels who help keep the country running. Walk the other way and you’ll find a dim hole-in-the-wall bar/gallery crammed with their Kosovar peers.

But Boxing Club Prishtina stands unattended, plaster cracked or stripped away by wind, rain, and time. Its rusted metal awning droops into Mark Isaki Street.

Before World War II, the Jews of Kosovo will tell you, the building housed a yeshiva or Jewish community center or maybe both — or maybe neither. Maybe it will be restored or torn down, become a monument or a memory.

 

Lords of the trains

How a world-class model railroad layout landed in a Paterson silk mill

Start with a three-year-old’s enchantment with a toy that moves by itself, as if by magic.

Add the love of a doting father.

Simmer with time. Throw in more than a dash of unexpected curves.

The result: The world’s largest O-scale model railroad layout.

On Sunday, you’re invited to the third floor of a former silk factory in Paterson to see it.

If you go, brace yourself. Prepare to be amazed. There are tracks and trains and buildings rendered in loving details. There’s a replica of an Esso oil refinery; a Manhattan subway station, replete with microscopic model rats, and there are yet more trains, including engines that puff rings of flavored smoke.

 

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Inclusion by design

Sinai Schools honors Holy Name Medical Center for community partnership

Imagine that you see a small group of students working with an art teacher, concentrating, creating, learning.

Add the understanding that these children have developmental disabilities, and that the art teacher is in fact an art therapist. Be sure, though, that when you add this knowledge, you do not — because you should not — let it detract from the clear truth that there is joy in this learning, and learning in this joy.

And then pull your gaze back to see that these children are in a larger school, where they have their own individualized learning programs but also sometimes mix with more standard-issue students. You realize that each group can learn from each other without being overwhelmed by the other’s very different needs, abilities, or interests.

And then pull back yet again, to see that all this is in a Jewish environment, where students of every ability are surrounded by the sounds, sights, calendar, and passions of their people. Of our people.

Pull back just once more, and you see love.

 

Inclusion by design

‘Sweet Boy’

Why do parents send their children to Sinai schools?

Because the school’s innovative program allows developmentally disabled Jewish children to develop the skills they need to live in this world, to make friends, not to define themselves by their disabilities. Because the school pays close attention to each child and spends a huge amount of time, care, experience, and love in tailoring a program that gives each child what he or she needs to live as independently as possible and as joyously as anyone else.

Why do parents not send their children to Sinai Schools?

Ah, that is an easier question to answer in some ways, but the answers to this one are devastating.

 

One bullet at a time

French priest finds graves, unearths stories from Europe’s killing fields

Father Patrick Desbois keeps all expression off his face when people tell him the most horrible things.

If he let his feelings show, the people wouldn’t talk. And he wants them to talk: He asks them questions again and again, pinning down details. Where did this happen? What window were you watching from? Who was there?

Listening without reacting is a core competency for a Catholic priest like Father Desbois. But in a confession booth, the priest’s face is shielded. Father Desbois interviews people in their homes, speaking face to face, if often through a translator.

“You have a choice,” he said last week. “You can express yourself or you can know the truth.”

The truth he seeks to uncover is a horrible one: the story of how more than two million people were murdered, one at a time, by Nazis and their Eastern European collaborators.

 
 
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