Sad to Say Goodbye to Shul

Faced with an aging congregation and changing neighborhood demographics, leaders of Beth Emeth-B'nai Yitzhok synagogue were forced over the last decade or so to implement innovative ideas to keep the shul afloat and in its home in the Northeast neighborhood of Oxford Circle. They offered free one-year memberships to all, and even contracted with several cell-phone companies to basically lease their roof, placing towers on the synagogue to facilitate calls — and drum up some revenue.

But even with such efforts, the 57-year-old synagogue was forced to close late last month.

"Our expenses were too great," lamented co-president Leonard Ginsberg, 78, who's been a member for 54 years. "We're losing people — they're moving or passing away — and we're getting no young people."

The synagogue will merge with the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim, about a 10-minute drive from Beth Emeth.

"We had simchas together, we had sorrows together," said co-president Diana Gottlieb, 78. "Hopefully, everything will work out, and we'll be one big happy family, like we were before."

Beth Emeth also attempted to make money by renting space to a preschool called Beautiful Beginnings Childcare Center.

But after two years, the situation wound up driving the synagogue's utility bills through the roof. During one cycle, bill came close to $7,000, according to Gottlieb.

"With small kids, we had to keep it hot in there" during the winter, said Ginsberg. "In the summer, we had the air running full-blast."

Even with the school paying around $3,500 per month in rent, reported Ginsberg, the utility bills were simply too expensive.

Before Beautiful Beginnings even moved in, the Licenses and Inspections department of the City of Philadelphia forced the synagogue to make repairs to its handicapped-accessible ramp, update its fire system and build additional doors leading outside, costing Beth Emeth some $20,000, said Ginsberg.

He went on to say that Beth Emeth had no choice but to make the repairs because "they would have closed the synagogue."

With members in their 70s, 80s and even 90s, the transition to Shaare Shamayim may not be so easy.

"A lot of them were very sad about having to uproot now at this age and start with another synagogue," said Gottlieb, "but they're willing to try."

Shaare Shamayim will display memorabilia and artifacts from Beth Emeth in a localized area of the facility, much as it has done for the four other synagogues that it's merged with over the years.

Sometime in the fall, the two shuls will host a Torah walk to symbolize the union.

'Part of Our Family'

"We welcome our new congregants, but it's very sad when a shul closes," said executive director Jacques Lurie. "But we're thrilled for them to become a part of our family."

After leading Beth Emeth as co-presidents, Gottlieb and Ginsberg will be part of Shaare Shamayim's executive board.

"We feel that there ought to be input at the highest level of the synagogue," said Lurie. "It's not an acquisition or merger — it's a marriage."

Rabbi Mitchell Romirowsky, who served as the temple's religious leader since 1996, will not move on to Shaare Shamayim, and has yet to determine what he'll do next.

Back in the 1960s, the synagogue boasted a membership of more than 950 families.

Upon closing, there were 220 individual congregants, according to Ginsberg.

"At one time, there were well over 1,000 kids in our Hebrew school," he noted. "Now we're down to about two or three."

Like many synagogues in Oxford Circle, Beth Emeth, which merged with B'nai Yitzhok in 1986, came from humble beginnings, with founding members going door-to-door to collect money.

They first purchased a farm-house located at Bustleton Avenue and Unruh Street. Nine years later, they knocked it down and began constructing the building that served them up until last month.

During the final years, many congregants commuted from other neighborhoods to attend services at Beth Emeth.

"Most of us don't even live in the area anymore," said Ginsburg, who now resides in Somerton, still in the Northeast but about 20 minutes away by car.

At Beth Emeth's final service on June 30, more than 150 people gathered to say farewell to the house of worship and each other. With such a large crowd, co-vice president Sheldon Stein said that "it seemed like a holiday service."

"It was a mixed mood," he recalled. "Joyous, because a lot of people haven't seen each other for years, but sad, because it was our very last service."



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