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Sons of Israel merges with Gesher Shalom

Leonia congregation joins larger Fort Lee neighbor

Six months after holding its final services in its Leonia sanctuary, Cong. Sons of Israel is officially merging with Cong. Gesher Shalom/Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee.

The merged congregation will retain Gesher Shalom’s name and facility in Fort Lee, less than a mile and a half from Sons of Israel, built in 1964, which has been sold to Bethel Central Church of Ridgefield.

The Leonia Conservative congregation had dwindled to 45 member-families. Founded in neighboring Palisades Park in 1927, it had 200 member families at its peak. Gesher Shalom had more than 300 families before the merger.

“It’s a sad situation, closing a synagogue,” said Sally Seymour, president of Sons of Israel. “But the people at Gesher Shalom have been wonderful to us, making it a very smooth merger.”

Cong. Sons of Israel, a Leonia landmark from 1964 to 2011. file photo

The approval of the merger by both congregations means this month will allow for the final disposition of the assets of Sons of Israel. It will donate some of the money to charity, and “a lot” will go to Gesher Shalom, said Seymour, who declined to discuss details of financial transactions that have not yet been completed.

Rabbi Kenneth A. Stern of Gesher Shalom sees the congregation forging into a “coherent, cohesive, and cooperative community of people who act in unison and interact in love.”

“We’ve been getting to know each other over the last year or so and everyone agrees that it’s a great union,” said Arnold Grodman, co-president of Gesher Shalom. “They are a wonderful group of people with a rich history. We’re honored that they have chosen us to be a part of their future.”

Seymour praised Gesher Shalom for welcoming her and her fellow Sons of Israel members.

“They have been so gracious and wonderful to us,” she said.

The biggest difference in the new congregation is the presence of a cantor, Paul Zim, and a sound system, she said. Sons of Israel had only a rabbi.

Seymour has fond memories of the synagogue. “It was very small, very intimate. We had the nicest kiddushes. We would sit and shmooze for hours,” she said.

At Gesher Shalom, the annual scholar-in-residence program will be renamed to honor Sons of Israel.

The merger comes as part of a nationwide decline in Conservative congregations, one that has been most marked here in the Northeast. From 2001 to 2010, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism dropped from 693 to 652 member-congregations and lost 15 percent of its member-families, according to a USCJ study. In the Northeast, it lost 30 percent of its member families.

In this area, Conservative and Reform synagogues have been merging at a steady rate.

In 2006, four Conservative congregations became two. The Elmwood Park Jewish Center merged with Temple Beth Sholom in Fair Lawn, and Fair Lawn’s Cong. B’nai Israel merged with the Fair Lawn Jewish Center/Cong. Etz Chaim.

In 2007, two Reform synagogues merged: Temple Beth Haverim in Mahwah and the Reform Temple of Suffern-Shir Shalom, becoming Beth Haverim Shir Shalom.

In 2008, two Conservative shuls merged: Congs. Beth Israel of Northern Valley in Bergenfield and Beth Sholom in Teaneck.

In 2009, two Reform congregations, Temple Avoda in Fair Lawn and Temple Sholom in River Edge, merged, becoming Temple Avodat Shalom.

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