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entries tagged with: Barry Dounn


Beth Am seeks to sell building, merge with other shul

You can find a lot on the Teaneckshuls e-mail list: appliances, doctors, even somebody to bring packages to Israel. Earlier this week, readers learned that Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Am is for sale.

The Reform synagogue has initiated a plan to merge with one of the four surrounding Reform synagogues — Teaneck’s Temple Emeth, Temple Sinai of Bergen County in Tenafly, Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge, or Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia — although Beth Am leaders have not yet begun discussions as to which one.

“The congregation is grappling with its future and it’s trying to decide how to proceed,” said Rabbi Harvey Rosenfeld. “It’s a self-examination based on demographics, based on community vitality.”

Barry Dounn, Beth Am’s treasurer, said the synagogue would like to complete a merger within a year. Because of the lagging real estate market, synagogue leaders decided to put the building on the market now, rather than wait until a deal is completed.

“We’re expecting it will take a while” to sell the building, he said.

A group of Teaneck residents created Beth Am in 1964 and moved into its Claremont Avenue building the following year. During the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Beth Am had a membership of 140 to 160 families. Now the shul has 40 member-families. The board decided in late 2008 to begin working on a merger, although, Dounn said, putting the building on the market is the first active step it has taken.

“We’ve got a long and valued history,” he said. “It’s something of a difficult decision we’re going through. We need to be realistic and realize that we’ve gotten too small to survive and operate the way we have been.”

In 2008, Union for Reform Judaism leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie said that cash-strapped Reform synagogues could merge with financially struggling Conservative synagogues. Beth Am’s leadership, however, would like to merge with another Reform synagogue, said Dounne.

Rosenfeld, who has been with Beth Am for 13 years, said that much of the Teaneck Jewish community has become more traditional, and two Reform synagogues are no longer sustainable.

“People are beginning to mourn what will be lost, but at the same time people are looking toward, hopefully, the creation of a stronger synagogue,” he said. “It’s not necessarily the end of an era but the beginning of new possibilities.”

Ed Malberg, president of the Union for Reform Judaism’s New Jersey-West Hudson Valley Council, has seen a number of Bergen County congregations from various streams seeking out mergers in recent years. The Reform population in the county is not as numerous as it was 30 years ago, he said, but in other parts of the state — such as Morris, Somerset, and Mercer counties — Jews are moving into areas where they had not previously clustered.

“It’s the kind of thing we saw much more frequently in Bergen and Essex 20 to 30 years ago,” he said.

The Reform movement remains strong, he said. He pointed to the movement’s National Federation of Temple Youth and camps, which he said have shown strong numbers last year and will likely top that this year.

Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn merged with Temple Sholom in River Edge last year to become Temple Avodat Shalom. Rabbi Jonathan Woll, Avoda’s religious leader, did not join the merged congregation in River Edge. Dounn said no decision has been made as to whether Rosenfeld or Cantor Susan Cohen DeStefano would continue in their roles after a merger.


Teaneck’s Beth Am to close its doors

Rabbi Harvey Rosenfeld, president Sheldon Burnston, and treasurer Barry Dounn reminisce about their years at Temple Beth Am, which will close its doors in June. Josh Lipowsky

When the members of Cong. Beth Am gathered at the Teaneck synagogue earlier this month for a Chanukah party, their cheer was dampened by the knowledge that this would be their last Chanukah celebration as a congregation.

Faced with dwindling membership and income, the leaders of the almost-50-year-old Reform synagogue first announced in May that the shul would close when its building appeared in a “For sale” listing on the Teaneck shul’s listserv. The plan had been to court four area Reform synagogues and pick one to merge with. After a series of meetings and visits in the past few months, however, the congregation was divided. And so, when Beth Am closes its doors for the last time in June, its 35 member-families will go different ways, with just more than half going to Temple Sinai in Tenafly, a large number joining Temple Emeth in Teaneck, and a handful joining Cong. Adas Emuno in Leonia. Synagogue leaders are working to smooth the transition and divide Beth Am’s religious texts and other items.

“They’ve all been very welcoming, very kind,” said Beth Am president Sheldon Burnston. “There have been other mergers in the past. We’ve tried to learn from other people’s experiences. We want to make this as pleasant as possible and as painless as possible.”

Burnston plans to join Temple Emeth and bring with him some of Beth Am’s programming, such as weekly visits to Teaneck’s Brightside nursing facility. Beth Am’s board members have been discussing closing for years, Burnston said. They looked for other options but found none.

“It hurts,” Burnston said. “I’m biting the bullet. I’m doing what needs to be done, but it’s with a heavy heart.”

Beth Am is a second home, said Barry Dounn, the synagogue’s treasurer, who has been a member for 22 years.

“We’re looking back and looking forward at the same time, celebrating our history here and looking forward to becoming members in our new homes,” he said.

Beth Am was founded in Hackensack in 1964. Two years later, the congregation bought the Claremont Avenue building from Grace Lutheran Church, which was moving to River Road. At its height, the synagogue had about 140 families and was an early career stop for Rabbi Marc Gellman of TV’s God Squad.

Beth Am’s confirmation and b’nai mitzvah portraits will be copied and given to Emeth and Sinai, Burnston said. The synagogue has three Torahs, one of which is a Holocaust scroll on loan from the Westminster Archive in Great Britain. Adas Emuno does not have a Holocaust scroll of its own, and Burnston has submitted paperwork for Beth Am’s scroll to be transferred there. Other items, such as the synagogue’s ner tamid and ark, are being apportioned between the synagogues.

“Packing up and moving is never an easy proposition,” Dounn said. “Many of us have been here 20-plus years. It’s the end of an era.”

Rabbi Harvey Rosenfeld, who has been with Beth Am for 14 years, does not yet know what the future holds for him. He has a background in social work and has worked as a Hillel director as well.

“I’ve done lots of things and I don’t feel like stopping doing them,” he said. “I’ve got some energy left and I’m hopeful some employment will emerge.”

Despite the uncertainty of his own future, Rosenfeld praised his congregants for how they are handling the transition. “We’ve known this is coming and it’s sad, but it’s also a new beginning,” he said. “It’s a weight that’s heavy but it’s also very exciting to a certain degree to watch my congregation deal with these issues and confront them in a gracious way.”

Members of Temple Emeth and Temple Sinai are eager to greet their new members, according to their rabbis.

“Any time a synagogue closes it’s a sad thing,” said Rabbi Jordan Millstein of Temple Sinai. “It’s very clear how much they love their congregation; the people who are there have been so dedicated.”

Sinai is not just getting a boost in membership, Millstein said. The members coming from Beth Am have proven themselves to be dedicated to synagogue life, he said.

“Here we’re getting people who have such a sense of what it means to be a real community, who have really dedicated themselves to the synagogue, to know what it means to be there for each other,” he said. “These are not just people who are going to join, these are people who are going to be leaders and part of the fabric of the synagogue.”

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