There were Hebrew school classes and youth activities, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and a full roster of minyans in Butte, Montana. There were three synagogues — two Orthodox and one Reform. There once were upward of 1,000 Jews. There were….
And that is a problem for synagogues in small towns like Butte and in smaller hamlets, too: There were. Jews settled in these places more than a century ago because of business opportunities. In Butte, it was mining, in other places a manufacturing boom or some reason to serve people by supplying clothing or food or furniture and the like, as the American population was spread across its states.
Families grew, children moved on to larger places and the American Jewish world became more of a metropolitan culture, as did America itself. In Butte, the population steadily shrank (it stands at about 32,000, down from more than 100,000 a century ago) and with it, the number of Jews. Now, the Reform congregation, B’nai Israel, is all that remains, with fewer than 20 families and an aging membership of about 30 people. And someone has to pay for an eternal flame to remain eternal.
And for cemetery upkeep and building maintenance, or to bury the old prayer books. “We’re looking right now at trying to deal with over 100 years of stuff that’s accumulated,” said Janet Cornish, 60, who describes herself as “kind of the secretary, interim president and cantorial soloist” of B’nai Israel. Founded in 1903, the synagogue, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, is Montana’s oldest. The congregants are pursuing a long-term plan “for what we’ll do in the future,” Cornish said, “so that the last person who walks out the door won’t have to deal with it.”
Other places in the state are thriving — Bozeman, for instance — and have active Jewish communities within them, but the members of B’nai Israel had to face a tough, sad fact: Their congregation’s life is waning.
In possibly 150 or so communities across the United States, a decline in Jewish numbers mirrors Butte’s, and although congregants may be in denial, the responsibilities of running synagogues will eventually force them into taking action. That action is becoming visible on several fronts, as synagogues look for help with issues they never before considered, let alone imagined.
In the case of Butte’s B’nai Israel, it comes in the form of a congregational living will, a way to plan for the day when there will be no B’nai Israel. The members have turned to the Jewish Community Legacy Project, which helps synagogues so that when the time comes, the institutions are not simply shuttered and abandoned.
In synagogues throughout the South, many dwindling congregations are turning to another outlet, the Mississippi-based Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, for help. Much of the institute’s relief comes in providing ways to keep congregations in operation — supplying educational programs or sending out Rabbi Marshal Klaven to congregations with no active rabbi. Klaven has led services in 32 Jewish congregations across the South in the past two years, from Mishkan Israel in Selma, Ala., to Temple Israel in Paducah, Ky.
In some cases, synagogues look into mergers, combine educational services or invite smaller havurot, fellowships, to share facilities — a practice that for some time has brought in new members to synagogues looking to balance a budget. And while some synagogues may be able to call on their congregants to stem losses in membership that threaten their institutions’ futures, large gifts from individuals or foundations have not been an answer to congregations in need of life support.
“From my experience,” said Robert Evans, managing director of Pennsylvania-based EHL Consulting and a specialist in Jewish-world fundraising, “we’re not seeing it. I can’t sight one example that would support the concept.”
EHL is working with healthy synagogues to see that they don’t eventually get into the sort of trouble now afflicting unhealthy ones. Its strategies include: asking members to endow their dues, to build a fund whose interest could pay for some operating costs or special programming or simply to keep the cemetery in order. This model, used by major arts organizations and universities, is only now beginning to be appreciated by synagogue leaders, according to Evans.
“When you look at philanthropy in America,” he said, “35% of all giving goes to religion — churches, synagogues and mosques. If you looked at the chart 10 years ago, 50% of all giving in America went to religion. Although the pie [of general giving dollars] has grown substantially, the percentage of the pie for religion is less, and the leadership of houses of worship — I’m not even going to pinpoint those of us in the Jewish community — have not kept pace with the trends, the more sophisticated financial management of other for-profit or nonprofit entities.
“We’re behind the times.”
When Roger Ackerman and his family moved to Sumter, S.C., from Goldsboro, N.C., in 1965, Ackerman joined Temple Sinai, “a very active congregation with a religious school, an adult education group, and a men’s club and sisterhood, and a youth group, and we drew members from about five other small towns around us. There were about 225 members.”
The congregation itself was born of a merger, way back in 1895. The first resident rabbi came in 1904. A new brick building followed in 1913, and after several additions, a newly remodeled sanctuary was dedicated in 1969. It’s unthinkable that back then, worshippers looked at the 11 sunlit stained-glass windows and were inspired to say to themselves, “Oh, what a beautiful sanctuary, and in 50 years it may all be over.”
Surely, none did. But that is now happening. Temple Sinai’s remaining 30-plus members are mostly in their late 70s and 80s, and some are in their 90s. “When I proposed in a letter to the congregation that we needed to have some kind of living will to plan for the future while we were still around, it was rejected out of hand,” said Ackerman, 79, a former president of the Reform Temple Sinai. Now, six years later, the congregants are working for the future through a living will, a plan for the congregation’s demise when its members are gone.
“It’s so obvious,” Ackerman said. “Every year, we lose more members and have more funerals. If you want a Jewish life, we can’t offer it to you anymore in Sumter. The young people have chosen not to return.”
The decision to seek help was laden with emotion, he says, and the local Jewish federation suggested the aid of David Sarnat, an Atlantan and former executive director of Atlanta’s federation. Sarnat founded the Jewish Community Legacy Project, which he funded with a $600,000 grant from the Marcus Project, a philanthropy established by Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus. “That suggestion from the federation was a godsend,” Ackerman said. “David is able to walk into a situation and grasp it very quickly. Next thing we knew, he had the Charleston Jewish Federation talking with us about our cemetery.” The plan calls for the federation to care for the cemetery into perpetuity, and for the congregation to install TV monitors “so that they can actually see the cemetery from their desks in Charleston.” The synagogue’s archives have been placed in a college, an arrangement that the congregation was making before Sarnat stepped in, and now the members are working with him on a plan for the future of their building.
“In every community, the first concern is what’s going to happen to the cemetery,” said Sarnat, who acts as a facilitator in discussions among members. “The other is what kind of assets they have that need to be distributed.”
Sarnat says that one of the great current assets for such synagogues are the members themselves, with a burning desire to maintain a Jewish life in their communities. “There’s a sort of myopia that sets in, in which we look at these communities as backwaters. Most of these communities are not able to afford a full-time rabbi, and some bring in student rabbis, but some have disbanded that because they can’t afford it. Some services are lay led, and people feel a responsibility to show up — and from a funding or programmatic point of view, they’re there, for Seders and other types of activities.
“Even though the community is declining, they’re not giving up on Jewish life,” Sarnat said.
The congregations, he says, have different concerns, ranging from the placement of Torahs to the safe storage of archival materials that sometimes start out in Yiddish and chronicle “all the major life issues that have gone on in 20th-century America.” In fact, each congregation’s plight is different, even if it stems from the same demographic trends, says Stuart Rockoff, director of history for the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. “My job is to make sure that the history of a congregation in a community is not forgotten.”
The problem, he said, “is that much of the funding in the Jewish world is geared toward the future, to creating the next generation of Jews.”
That generation is being created outside the places where many small-town Jews, the current generation of parents, grew up. “We are a wandering people,” Evans said. “The average life of a synagogue building in the United States today is 50 years. Populations shift. We move. Icons come and icons go. Hopefully, the Jewish community lives on well beyond you and me.”
Howard Shapiro is a theater critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and also writes about travel.