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Back to Germany

Father of Fair Lawn resident returns as honored guest

Larry YudelsonLocal | World
Published: 01 July 2011

Walter Spier had returned to Germany before.

But his recent trip was different. This time, the 83-year-old Holocaust survior was an invited guest of his hometown of Holzhausen, where high school students had undertaken to renovate the Jewish cemetery where his grandparents are buried.

Born in Germany in 1927, Spier had remained behind when his oldest siblings escaped to England in 1938. After surviving Auschwitz, he returned to his Holzhausen after liberation, and after a year moved to America where he settled in Washington Heights.

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Walter Spier addresses the ceremony rededicating the Jewish cemetery of Holzhausen in Germany. Courtesy Arnold Spier

He once returned to Germany with his wife Karla, who had escaped with her family from Germany before the war.

He took his two sons back a few years ago. Three years ago, he took his three grandsons.

“He felt it was important to teach us, to show us,” said his son, Arnold Spier, who lives in Fair Lawn.

“Early on my father did not talk about it much. Only after he had grandchildren did he start. He felt he had an obligation to teach them and leave that legacy,” said the younger Spier.

It was that sense of obligation that led Walter Spier to accept the invitation from the town’s mayor to join in the ceremony rededicating the cemetery.

“I didn’t want to go because I knew how emotional it would be for me,” he said.

Nonetheless, he went, accompanied by his wife.

He returned to the school he had attended until he was expelled in 1938 following Kristallnacht. He told the students, “The last time I was here I was sitting in the back because I was a Jew. Today I’m sitting in the front and I’m telling you the story.”

Spier said, “The children were crying, especially the girls.”

In a speech read by his wife at the cemetery dedication — Spier feared he would be too emotional to read it himself — he told of his experience.

“There were some Germans who were loyal Nazis who made our lives miserable. I won’t mention their names but I remember who they are and what they did visibly. However, there were also good citizens of Holzhausen who secretly helped my parents.”

In September of 1942, Spier was deported to Theresienstadt along with all of the town’s Jews. Two years later, he was transferred to Auschwitz.

“I was alone in a concentration camp with only strangers,” he recalled. Most spoke Yiddish, which as a German Jew he didn’t know.

As the Allies approached, he was sent on a death march to Mauthausen in Austria.

“Very few of us survived the march. The only way that I survived was with the help of an SS officer who shared his food with me and kept me from sleeping so that I would not freeze to death like the others. Why he befriended me and looked out for me while a few thousand others died, I will never truly understand,” Spier said.

At the cemetery, students displayed posters they had created showing family histories of some of those buried there and of their descendants killed in the Holocaust and not buried at all.

“They did a lot of research,” said Spier.

A few hundred people were at the cemetery, including teachers, students, and parents. They were addressed by the mayor, the head of the Jewish community of the nearby town of Marburg, and a Protestant minister.

“After three hours, we were still there and people were asking questions,” said Spier.

“When I saw the reaction of the people, I said to myself, it’s a successful trip,” he said. “It was very important for the children to see what went on.”

 
 

The Y of it all

The non-shul with a pool

“No quotas here!” was the early rallying call of the YMHA of Paterson as it sought to compete with the more-established, but less Jew-friendly, YMCA.

It was in 1914 that efforts to establish a YMHA in Paterson finally succeeded. An earlier attempt in 1877 to “develop decent Jewish manhood and womanhood in Paterson” failed to take root, as did subsequent efforts.

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Y cornerstones from 1924, 1950, and 1976

The Paterson YMHA-YWHA was renamed the YM-YWHA of North Jersey when it moved to its suburban Wayne campus in 1976.

And while the Y’s Jewish programming is seen as vital to today’s local Jewish community, a century ago the priority was different.

“If you are a Jew, you want a better Americanization for Jewish people,” the Y declared during the World War I era, according to a history the Y published in 1977.

Americanization was a major focus of the Ys of that era, which were largely serving the children of the mass Eastern European Jewish immigration that had begun in 1880, said David Kaufman, associate professor of religion at Hofstra University and an expert on the YMHA and YWHA movements.

“The immigrants weren’t interested in the Y. It wasn’t Jewish or European enough. But it was a perfect institution for the second generation,” he said.

The original 19th century YMCA movement “was really a Christian movement. It was meant to be a kind of a youth church that was meant to bring young people to religion,” said Kaufman.

By contrast, the YMHA movement was “a self-consciously secular movement. Its mission was to be an alternative to the synagogue,” said Kaufman, author of the book “Shul with a Pool: The ‘Synagogue-Center’ in American Jewish History.”

“The Y really was this extraordinarily important force in American Jewish life and that’s been forgotten,” he said.

 
 

The Y of it all

YM-YWHA joins with Christian counterpart

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A banner promoting Israel hangs in the lobby of the YM-YWHA of Northern New Jersey. Noam Safier

Beginning Sept. 1, the YM-YWHA of North Jersey in Wayne will be rebranded as “The Wayne Y” and its operation will be taken over by the Metro YMCA of the Oranges. The arrangement was approved last week by the YM-YWHA board.

There are no plans to change the current roster of Jewish programs, which range from a pre-school to programs for elderly Holocaust survivors, officials of both Ys say. Under the agreement, the building will continue to be owned by the YM-YWHA and its logo will appear alongside that of the Metro YMCA on brochures for Jewish programming.

The move comes in response to changing demographics and declining revenues at the YM-YWHA, which was founded in 1914 as the YMHA of Paterson.

The new operation will maintain the Y’s “Jewish culture,” said Lawrence Fechner, president of the YM-YWHA. “This is a joining of two organizations that have a very similar purpose,” he said.

Fechner said that the Y will continue to be closed on Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and at times during Passover. Now, it also will close on Christmas and Easter, but will not have decorations for those holidays. The Y began opening on Shabbat afternoons in 2006; in 2009, it extended its Shabbat opening hours to the morning.

The Metro YMCA of the Oranges encompasses five YMCA facilities in Sussex and Essex counties that share back office and administrative services. Bringing the Wayne Y into this system will result in cost savings. “That’s part of the advantage of being in a YMCA association,” said the organization’s president and CEO, Richard Gorab.

“The YMCA is an organization that promotes youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility,” said Gorab. “It is our objective to deliver our mission throughout the community while maintaining the core programs of Jewish content.”

With the resources of the larger YMCA, the Wayne Y will be able to catch up on building maintenance that had been deferred. “Our members will see improvements,” said Joyce Goldberg Fein, interim executive director of the YM-YWHA.

Fein said that her Y had approached Jewish institutions for partnerships before beginning negotiations with the YMCA 18 months ago.

Several years ago, a study of the YM-YWHA prepared for the Jewish federation warned of its negative long-term outlook, according to people involved in that study.

The decline in YM-YWHA membership “reflects the continued out-migration of the Paterson Jews beyond Wayne to points north and west,” said Wayne resident Eric Weis.

The Y moved to its Wayne campus in 1976.

The Metro Y hopes to double the Wayne Y’s membership through “a major marketing effort,” said Gorab. The Y currently has around 1,800 membership units and an estimated 5,000 members, of which an estimated half are Jewish, according to Fein.

“We anticipate that through our marketing we’ll be able to drive revenue,” said Gorab.

“It is regrettable that the Wayne Y cannot remain a totally Jewish institution,” said David Gad-Harf, interim executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey. “However, we know that this was the only alternative that they saw that was feasible. We also know that the leaders of the Wayne Y are completely committed to maintaining if not strengthening their service to and programming for that area’s Jewish community.”

The YM-YWHA has been one of the eight major agencies supported by the federation. In recent years, it had received an allocation of $90,000, as had the JCC on the Palisades and the YJCC in Washington Township. But with an eye toward the change under discussion in Wayne, the federation changed its funding this current year from an unrestricted grant to targeted support for Jewish programming. In the process, the federation boosted the allocation to $100,000, said Gad-Harf.

“We envision the Wayne Y continuing to be a hub of activity focusing on the Jewish community,” he said.

The Wayne Y will not be the first Jewish facility operated by a YMCA.

In Toledo, Ohio, the Jewish Community Center has been under YMCA auspices since 1999, said Larry Lev, chief operating officer of the Metro Y, who held that position in Toledo. “The JCC of Toledo was a stand-alone organization,” he said. “It’s much more productive to stand together with friends than to stand alone.”

The Toledo JCC remains a center of the Jewish community, and is housed on a campus that includes two synagogues, he said.

Closer to home, the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County in Edison shares a campus with the YMCA of Edison. Under that arrangement, the JCC is closed Friday nights and until 1 p.m. on Saturday — but the building is open and operated by the YMCA during those Shabbat hours.

While the YMCA movement has its historical origins as a Christian one, today each Y defines its own mission in accordance with community needs. In New Jersey, that means diversity is a priority, said Lev.

“Our mission statement doesn’t talk about Christian values,” said Lev of the Metro Y.

“The Y is a non-denominational entity where people of all faiths are welcome,” said Lev, who serves on the board of Jewish Congregation-Kinnelon. “That’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to work with the YMCA all these years.”

Lev said the process of combining the two Ys will take until at least the new year. Among the questions that have not yet been decided include whether the Y’s Tel Aviv café will remain under rabbinical supervision, and whether the Y will continue its policy of not conducting monetary transactions on Shabbat.

The YM-YWHA will continue to maintain an independent board and will own the building.

“We have a very rich history,” said Fein. “I’m part of that history — my grandparents were members of the Paterson Y.

“I feel optimistic,” said Fein, “I believe this is our best option. We will continue carrying forward our Jewish traditions toward the future.”

But Irwin Kijkai, a longtime YM-YWHA member, does not like the changes. Sitting on a bench outside the facility last Thursday, he said, “Jewish people have invested in the Y. Why are they changing it?”

“It will have another ta’am, another flavor.”

 
 

Jews are responsible for one another

Locally, change came first

At the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, change is well under way as a new generation assumes leadership.

With the Adler Family Innovation Fund, launched a few months ago, the federation embraced a new model of spurring communal creativity.

The fund received 70 proposals from a variety of institutions for projects locally and overseas, said David Gad-Harf, the federation’s chief operating officer and for six months its interim chief executive. It expects to announce successful proposals next month, and hopes to have $300,000 in dedicated funding for them.

“The process we’ve been following for the innovation fund is like a test of the way we’re going to be approaching all funding going forward,” he said. “We’ll identify priorities for the community, issue requests for proposals, make selections, monitor performance, and see that the agencies accomplish what they set out to do.

“We’ve been a traditional federation, a federation that raises money in a traditional manner, disburses money in a traditional manner, relates to agencies in a traditional manner. We’ve awakened to the reality that in order to thrive in the future, we have to make changes in all three areas,” said Gad-Harf.

These changes emerged from the federation’s strategic planning process. David Goodman, 47, who assumed the post of the federation’s president last month, led the implementation of the new strategic plan. But Jason Shames, who assumed the role of federation chief executive officer this week at the age of 40, came into the federation with the changes already well underway.

“This isn’t like going out to the O.K. Coral and building from scratch,” he said about his new post. “We have quality leadership, quality staff, and quality institutions.”

 
 

Jews are responsible for one another

David Gad-Harf looks back on six months as chief

Sometimes organizations hiring an interim leader are looking for a caretaker to continue business as usual until the new leader stakes out a new course.

At the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, change was already the order of the day when Howard Charish ended his tenure as chief executive and David Gad-Harf assumed the position of interim executive at the beginning of the year. When he was asked to head up the organization until Charish’s successor could be found, “The clear message was to not be a caretaker but to move the organization forward, since were at such a pivotal point,” he said in an interview on Monday, his first day back as the federation’s associate executive vice president and chief operating officer with Jason Shames at the organization’s helm.

“It wasn’t a quiet time to be the interim executive vice president. But I really feel proud that I’ve been able to play an important role in maintaining, if not strengthening, the organization during a period of intense change,” he said.

Gad-Harf was already intimately involved with the federation’s day-to-day operations as its chief operating officer. He led the strategic planning process that led to the changes under way at federation.

But sitting in the top seat was different.

“I feel like I’ve learned a lot. Part of what I’ve gained is a lot of additional experience in high-end fundraising. These days the executive of a federation has to spend the bulk of his or her time raising funds. It was during this period that we needed to close our annual campaign. I had a lot of additional responsibilities for cultivating relationships with our major donors and bringing them to the point where they were eager to make their donations to the 2011 campaign. It wasn’t foreign to me before then, but I gained a lot of additional experience.

“It also provided me with a broader perspective of our federation as a whole and the role of the CEO within it. There’s an additional kind and level of responsibility that comes with being the top professional in any organization or corporation. You don’t understand or feel it until you’re there, to really feel responsible for the future and well-being of this organization,” he said.

“I really feel fortunate to remain in a position where I can continue to move the federation forward. This is an exciting time to be a professional at the federation. I look forward to being Jason’s partner as we move the federation forward,” he said.

 
 

Exchange students

JCRC spearheads dialogue between Jews and Evangelicals

Larry YudelsonLocal
Published: 29 July 2011

The Jewish Community Relations Council’s Jewish-Evangelical dialogue emerged from the latter group’s support for Israel.

When the JCRC arranged buses to pro-Israel rallies in New York City, “there were always representatives from the Evangelical communities of neighboring towns. They were part of Christians United For Israel. We of course made room for them on the bus,” said Joy Kurland, who directs the JCRC for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

“From that we began to know each other a little bit better. We thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to convene some key Jewish leadership and some key Evangelical leadership to see whether we would want to explore the relationship further through a dialogue series, to see where our commonalities and differences lie,” she said.

The JCRC brought together 10 representatives of each group for a series of discussions that began in November 2009 involving both clergy and lay people.

“It led to a wonderful friendship and greater understanding of each other. It created a greater understanding of the different aspects of our faith traditions. We’ve come to see where our different perspectives lie and where they cross paths and where we have commonalities. It’s led to wonderful friendship.”

The group meets approximately once a month. After an initial session on the principles of interreligious dialogues, meetings have featured presentations on topics including: the case for Jesus and the case for chosenness; Isaiah 56 as a text for religious understanding; social justice; attitudes toward homosexuality; life after death; the authority of Scripture.

The series will resume after the summer with presentations on “respective views of each of our faith communities on interfaith marriage.”

“As we study together, we learn more about each other,” said Kurland.

“I clearly see what great allies we have [in the evangelicals] when it comes to support for Israel. A lot of misconceptions existed about what their ulterior motives were, and these were totally dispelled. People came with suspicions about conversion and proselytization. That’s not an issue. These people are our friends.

“The evangelical leaders and laypeople who have been at the table are people we can truly count on in support of Israel.

“Being able to understand each other and our different religious perspectives is a very positive force going forward,” she said.

 
 

Exchange students

Pastor and his ‘worship team’ to visit Temple Emeth

Larry YudelsonLocal
Published: 29 July 2011

It’s almost a tradition.

In two weeks, Teaneck’s Temple Emeth Reform congregation will host the nearby Covenant House of Faith International church for Friday night services.

Pastor Keni Ashby will speak from the pulpit, and his “worship team” — a band in which Ashby plays drums — will lead the congregation in singing.

This will be the third pulpit exchange between the two congregations.

“Last year, this was the most exciting, energetic service of the summer,” said Temple Emeth’s Rabbi Steven Sirbu of the first such exchange. In December, Sirbu addressed Ashby’s congregation on “everything we wish you knew about us Jews.”

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Pastor Keni Ashby, left, and Rabbi Steven Sirbu in front of Temple Emeth’s ark. courtesy rabbi steven sirbu

The collaboration reflects a friendship between the two spiritual leaders that is the fruit of a two-year-old dialogue between Jews and evangelical Christians organized by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

Explains Sirbu: “I like the fact that he brings so much passion to everything he says. I like the fact that I can disagree with him but still feel it doesn’t affect our friendship. I like the fact that I feel we can teach and learn from each other equally.”

This time, at the request of Sirbu, Ashby will speak about change.

“His church and our congregation are both changing in different ways, and his insights into the nature of change and how people respond to change will be really interesting,” said Sirbu.

“We’re experimenting with liturgy. His appearance along with his worship team is part of that liturgical experimentation,” he said.

The topic came from a conversation between the two about their different services.

“He was telling me about some of the changes he wanted to make,” said Ashby. “He noticed that we have a big video screen. Now people don’t have to hold a book. It’s more easy to read and sing along. He liked that idea, but said his people may not.”

Ashby said that when he preaches, “there’s a lot of improv,” but that he has begun “praying and meditating and looking in the Scriptures where change came about.

“I can show from the Scripture, look what happened when change came, look at the people who embraced change, look at the people who rejected it,” Ashby said.

“The first time we came to Temple Emeth, we said we have a couple of songs that sound really really upbeat, it’s like an Israeli tempo, a clap your hands type thing. Then we submitted the words” to make sure they would be appropriate in the Jewish setting.

What: Pastor Keni Ashby preaching and leading musical worship service

Where: Cong. Temple Emeth, 1666 Windsor Road, Teaneck

When: Friday, Aug. 12, 8 p.m.

“Most of the songs we do we write ourselves. They’re nice worship songs, singing to God,” he said.

“There is a lot we can learn from people of other faiths,” said Sirbu. “Interfaith partnership is a key to being a vibrant part of this community.”

Ashby, 46, moved to Teaneck when he was 12 years old. For the past seven years, he has coached girls softball at the Teaneck Baseball Organization, “which is basically 95 percent Orthodox. They just know me as Coach Ken,” he said.

So when he was scheduled to speak at Temple Emeth last year, it seemed only natural to invite the parents of his team.

“I didn’t know how they feel about going to a Reform synagogue. I was kind of heartbroken that the Orthodox community doesn’t want to have anything to do with Temple Emeth. I just don’t understand it.”

“That’s another thing he should preach on, one of the things I never knew, that synagogues don’t do things together. I thought Jewish people stick together. Now it makes sense to me the reason why the Church has all these different denominations, because it’s also in Judaism.”

 
 

Shalom Academy insider speaks

Behind the scenes at the charter school

When the September opening of Shalom Academy Charter School was postponed for a year by New Jersey’s Department of Education last week, the question was what went wrong.

Most directly, the cause was seen as the failure to secure in time a home for the school that was acceptable to certifying authorities.

Some observers blamed what they said was a lack of transparency on the part of Raphael Bachrach, the Englewood businessman who secured the school charter after multiple applications. In the last few months, Bachrach maintained an elusive profile, returning neither phone calls nor e-mails from reporters from several newspapers seeking comment.

He briefly broke that silence this week to say he plans to open the school in September 2012. That comment aside, according to one insider who spoke to The Jewish Standard this week, Bachrach’s reluctance to speak to reporters was part of a larger pattern of distancing himself from early and close supporters of the school.

This insider, who is listed as a school founder on the school’s website, spoke on condition of anonymity. She said she did not want to upset relatives who feared that the charter school would undercut existing private Jewish day schools. Many in Bergen County’s Orthodox community felt the same way.

Bachrach did not respond to a request to comment for this story, nor did others listed as founders on the SAC website. For her part, the founder who did speak still believes the school is necessary. What went wrong was Bachrach’s desire to go it alone, she said.

She offered “a considerable amount of my time,” she said, but he “never took me up on it.”

Bachrach, she said, was also reluctant to turn to the Jewish community for help. He feared that support from the community for SAC would imperil it. “The most important thing is that we don’t give the appearance that this is a Jewish community project,” the source quoted him as saying.

“The people he had been working with had put a great deal of fear in him, a great deal of paranoia, that his whole precious school project would be overturned by people standing up in front of a committee in Trenton and claiming that this was somehow a backdoor for a publicly funded Jewish school,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s an untrue fear. However, how are you going to raise money if you can’t go to a community that is going to benefit from this school? Who do you think is going to write the checks? The state does not give you a starting grant to go and open the school. But Rafi …was fearful that if a lot of Jews were seen to be giving money he would lose the school.”

The founder speculated that not having money in the bank was one reason the school failed to rent an acceptable space by the June deadline set by the state.

“Why couldn’t he get a building? What’s up with that? We’re in a recession. There are many buildings available,” she said.

The source said that Bachrach “cut off all communication” with her in May, after she questioned the pedagogical basis for the school’s planned Hebrew immersion curriculum, which proposed to teach subjects such as math and science in Hebrew.

Looking back, she said, “Getting a building is when the rubber hits the road. It means you have the community backing and financial heft to convince a building owner that you can manage the lease. It shows your seriousness and the depth of the commitment of the people behind you. I see that now.”

Looking forward, she wishes Bachrach success and hopes the school will succeed in opening in September 2012.

“Nobody has experience starting a charter school,” she said. “Everybody makes mistakes. I can only hope that Rafi will rethink his strategy, that he learns from his mistake. I sincerely hope that he learns and brings people in who can steer the school into opening successfully. I sincerely hope it happens.”

 
 

Bank offers to make up for Teaneck busing budget cut

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Many parents in Teaneck are protesting the consolidation of private school bus routes. Larry Yudelson

The school busing controversy in Teaneck took some sharp turns this week.

On Monday, 400 parents gathered at the Richard Rodda Community Center to protest the consolidation of private school bus routes announced by the Teaneck Board of Education late last month. The controversial plan would save bus drivers time and the board of education $85,000.

Monday’s meeting was called by a group of concerned parents under the banner of Safe Teaneck. The parents warned that the plan endangered their children. It required children to walk long distances in the early morning, and to wait in unwieldy groups of as many as 20 students at street corners, many of which have no sidewalks. The group of parents of day school students was supported by two of the town’s Orthodox council members, who echoed parents’ concerns that the changes would endanger the children.

Board of education members present at the meeting said they were concerned for the safety of the children, but they did not endorse the complaints.

In a related development on Monday, a Teaneck bank offered to donate $85,000 to the school district to offset the cost of restoring full-service bus routes.

“I feel very close to the community,” said Gilles Gade, chairman of Cross River Bank in Teaneck, explaining why he asked his bank’s board to approve the donation.

Gade, an Orthodox Jew, commutes to Teaneck from his home in Cedarhurst, Long Island.

“As a parent, I feel for the parents in the community,” he said. “The bank was specifically opened to make a difference in the lives of the people we serve.”

Gade was alerted to the issue by the councilmen, Elie Katz and Yitz Stern, he said.

The offer would seem to resolve the issue, but the board of education was not prepared to accept it in advance of a public meeting it planned to hold on Wednesday, after this paper went to press. The public meeting was called to give parents another chance to express their concerns.

“The devil is in the details,” Ardie Walser, president of the board, told The Jewish Standard. “As a board, we have to be bogged down in the details.”

Walser said that students in public school will also suffer under the new school budget, which eliminated “courtesy” busing to students in kindergarten through fourth grade who live less than two miles from their school.

“This is a safety issue,” Stern told Monday’s meeting. “This is not about religion, not about how much property tax people pay.”

But property tax bills came up in heated one-on-one conversations between day school parents and school board members after Monday’s meeting ended. Many day school parents felt that in cutting back on bus services, the school board had broken an unspoken social contract they had with the school board.

“People moved to Teaneck for the busing,” said one mother of four, who asked for anonymity. “When the Realtors showed us the houses, they said, it would cost a little bit less to buy in Bergenfield, but there it will cost you $2,000 a child for busing.” Property taxes in Bergenfield are significantly lower, she said.

The mother said that parents of yeshiva students feel that the board of education was instituting a serious cut to the services to close a very small budget gap. The board of education does not dispute the numbers. It said that the combined savings from both consolidating private school busing and eliminating in-town courtesy busing come to one-third of one percent of the district’s $87 million budget for the coming year.

 
 

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

Local mergers reflect a national trend

Larry YudelsonCover Story
Published: 05 August 2011

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.

 
 
 
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