Thanks to the efforts of Reconstructionist Congregation Kol Emet in Yardley, the Bristol Jewish Center has been given a new lease on life.
This could have been a sad story, with a sad ending. And had it played out that way, it wouldn’t have been the first time an older congregation, its membership dwindling, struggling to pay the bills and to keep up with the demands of the day, had no choice but to close its doors.
Then it would’ve been time to say Kaddish for Bristol Jewish Center.
Except, thanks to the efforts of Reconstructionist Congregation Kol Emet in Yardley, BJC has been given a new lease on life. After four months of negotiating and hammering out the details, the two have merged, a partnership that not only enhances membership but brings a new spirit to the community.
“It’s mutually beneficial,” said Kol Emet president, Randi Davis, who took office in June after her predecessor, Andrew Finkle, got the process started back in May. “It rounds us out.
“They were an aging congregation, mostly empty-nesters. Our congregation is skewed younger. We center on pre-school, Hebrew school and B’nai Mitzvot.
“Now we get more traditional service attendees. It will help with our adult education. We used to have a senior citizen group. Now we hope to revive that.
“And maybe they’ll come up with some ideas of their own we haven’t thought about.”
Created in 1904, Bristol Jewish Center had served the Lower Bucks County community for well over 100 years when it became apparent things needed to change. Their 60-year-old building was usually packed for the High Holidays and other major events. But on other occasions, they found it difficult even having enough for a minyan.
“Our kids had grown up and it didn’t feel right not going for High Holidays, so we were looking for a place not as costly,” said Steve Flaumenbaum, who played an instrumental role — along with Alan Vogenberg — in making the merger happen. “We found Bristol about 12 years ago and had been members since.
“But basically we’d been having a hard time lately getting enough people together for most services. Alan was a longtime member who took it upon himself to manage the place. But we needed to get others to help out, so I got involved.”
They sent out feelers to local synagogues to see if there was interest in a merger. Brothers of Israel in Newtown and Kol Emet were the ones to respond, with Kol Emet being the more aggressive. While the haggling over details — particularly how to divide the proceeds of the BJC building when it’s presumably sold and how much membership fees would be, since KE’s were considerably higher — took a while to resolve, ultimately both sides made it happen.
Kol Emet rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy, who arrived only last year after spending the previous six years at Reconstructionist Tzedek v’Shalom in Bucks County, is delighted. “It’s a great opportunity,” said Rabbi Boswell-Levy, who will be going on maternity leave in January, though no decision has been made how to fill her spot while she’s away. “I’m relatively new at Kol Emet and we’ve been learning about one another and sharing our backgrounds.
“Now I’ll be continuing to do that with a new set of folks. I understand they’ve been together for a long time and want to find out what they want to bring to Kol Emet. From what I see, they are optimistic and looking forward.
“But as excited as I am, I want to be sensitive; this is a loss. They’re selling the home they’ve been in for a long time. This is a new home, so I don’t expect them to jump right in.”
Her mentor at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and good friend, Rabbi Judith Abrahamson, who served as BJC’s High Holidays rabbi for 14 years, will help in the transition. “About three years ago, we recognized that we were losing elderly members and dwindling in size,” said Rabbi Abrahamson, who has helped train a number of student rabbis through the years that subsequently filled in at BJC during Shabbat and on other occasions. “At our weekly service, it was difficult to get a minyan. Bristol never had an official rabbi. They hired me for those 14 years.”
Now she’s content to sit back as a new Kol Emet congregant and watch others. “At this point, I don’t have my own congregation — and I’m not looking to have one,” she said. “I’m happy helping out Anna whatever she needs me to do. We’re good friends.
“I’m looking forward to getting involved with Kol Emet. They’ve extended a wonderful arm of friendship. At High Holiday services, I counted at least 15 families from Bristol, who were made to feel welcome. They offered aliyot and other honors to some people. The person who reads Haftorah read his part. The shofar blower was part of their group.
“We could’ve continued maybe another year or two. But when Kol Emet became available, we made the decision to do it as quickly as possible to start the New Year.”
The welcoming feeling is very much mutual. “From the highest of levels, what we wanted to do is preserve their history, integrate them and be a place to welcome them with open arms,” said Finkle, who stayed fully involved in the process even after his term as president expired. “It’s a shame their institution was forced to make this decision.
“They have a building that’s been around for a while. They had a rich tradition in Bristol area. They wanted to preserve that tradition — and we wanted to help.”