Across the country, millennials are leaving small hometowns for big-city life.
This migration has impacted local Jewish communities, just as it has affected other communities nationwide. Combined with the national trend of shrinking non-Orthodox synagogue attendance, small-town synagogues such as Adas Kodesch Shel Emeth (AKSE) in Wilmington, Del., are among those who have been hit particularly hard.
In October, after several years of review and discussion, the congregation of AKSE voted to put the synagogue building up for sale.
Percival Goodman, a leading synagogue architect who died in 1989, designed the building — dedicated in 1963 — for a congregation of 500 families. More than 50 years later, the congregation has shrunk to fewer than 200 families.
“There’s concern about change, but it’s not like we’re walking into the deep unknown,” AKSE President Jonathan Jaffe said. “It’s a process that we’re on, that most people agree with. It’s unfortunate, but that’s where we’re at.”
Related to the shrinking Jewish community, Jaffe noted, is the fact that the economic environment of Wilmington is not attracting new jobs or workers.
AKSE also faces the additional challenge of being a traditional congregation, which follows an Orthodox worship service but with mixed-gender seating, Jaffe said. That puts it toward the right of most Conservative congregations, but to the left of most Orthodox synagogues.
“[Traditional Judaism] is what we grew up with, what we believe in and what we enjoy and think is comfortable and very important,” Jaffe said.
Though Jaffe said a strong majority of the congregation agreed that this was the right decision, there was still a small faction that opposed the move until the very end.
“This is a very hard thing,” Jaffe said. “I would rather not be moving. People have been Bar Mitzvahed here, and their parents married here, so there’s a lot of memories tied up in the building. It’s a big, beautiful, wonderful building.”
The Jewish community in Delaware established Adas Kodesch in the 1880s. At the time, the community had “two vastly different groups of Jewish immigrants in Wilmington, those who danced in satin at fancy balls, and those who struggled to make a living in a new land,” according to Becoming American, Remaining Jewish: The Story of Wilmington, Delaware’s First Jewish Community, 1879-1924.
Like many Jewish communities around the country, the first immigrants in Wilmington hailed from Germany, but a wave of Jews from Eastern Europe starting in the late 1800s quickly surpassed them. These new immigrants, mostly from Russia, established Adas Kodesch, a more traditional synagogue than Ohabe Shalom, which the German community had opened not too long before.
Soon, another Orthodox synagogue, Ahavath Achim, opened and merged with Adas Kodesch. In 1898, Adas Kodesch became Delaware’s first synagogue to have its own building and, in 1900, another synagogue, Chesed Shel Emeth Congregation, opened and then merged as well.
Beginning in the 1940s, the synagogue started adapting to a more Americanized community. This was around the same time that the synagogue adopted the label “traditional” as a compromise between congregants who wanted the community to have an Orthodox rabbi and those who wanted it to have a Conservative rabbi.
Over the years, the congregation moved to different buildings several times; most recently, in 1963, when it moved to its current location on Washington Boulevard.
“We’re looking for a place to meet our needs given the current circumstances and demographics in the Jewish community,” AKSE Rabbi Steven Saks said. “And people now understand, that if you look at Jewish papers from all over the country, you’ll see all the time congregations are making moves to find appropriate spaces.”
Jaffe and his wife joined the synagogue in 1982 for its community, as well as the rigorous exposure to Judaism and Hebrew the synagogue could offer his kids. His children, like many children of the congregants from his generation, grew up in the synagogue, attended Hebrew school and had their Bar Mitzvahs there, but moved away for college and didn’t return.
“Most kids left Wilmington,” Jaffe said. “They’re in New York. They’re in Philadelphia. They’re in Chicago.”
At the moment, AKSE has no clear timeline for the move. First, it needs to sell the building, Jaffe said, and the congregation is in the process of considering new locations.
“I’m hoping the congregation will move along and embrace our new environment,” Jaffe said. “I’m not sure we know what’s going to happen. … I don’t think we’re walking off a cliff. Change is hard, and we’re not sure how it’s going to be, what it’ll look like when we have a different building.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0729