On Dec. 7, Rabbi Gregory Marx presided over the funeral of the last living founder of his synagogue: Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen. The man, who died at 104, was a member of one of the six families that started Beth Or in 1955.
It was a sad day, according to Marx. As the rabbi put it, he will now look out on the High Holidays and see another empty seat.
But, at the same time, he will see that most of the chairs are still full.
Congregation Beth Or has lost about 100 families over the past five years, according to Marx. The congregation is down from its all-time high of about 1,100 households. But it still retains an active membership of roughly 985 families. The last founder may be gone, but the synagogue remains.
And it doesn’t just remain. It is strong, with a recently paid-off mortgage, 450 students in the religious school, 185 kids in the preschool and more than 100 weekly attendees at hybrid Shabbat services. Marx has been the temple’s spiritual leader since 1989 and spent much of that time raising money, he said. Now, as he prepares for his retirement in June 2024, he is excited to have the resources to spend more on members than on interest payments, as he put it.
“We’ve weathered the storm,” he said of the larger movement away from synagogue membership.
Marx learned from original congregants that Beth Or was built on a helpful spirit. Members came from “well-established, well-heeled congregations,” the rabbi said, with assigned seats that placed wealthier congregants up front. At Beth Or, they did not want the same arrangement. Instead, they wanted their new Reform temple to be egalitarian. People could sit where they wanted, and everyone would help with more than just their wallets.
Members had to pitch in with their hands and feet because the synagogue, as Marx explained, “didn’t have the resources it has now.” So in the 1950s and ’60s, if there was a job that needed to be done, congregants came by and did it. They painted the walls; they moved furniture to set up for events; they mowed the lawn; they plowed the snow.
“There was a can-do spirit,” Marx said.
Today, Beth Or has enough money to hire people to mow the lawn and plow the snow, according to the rabbi. But its members maintain that spirit. They just focus it outward a little more.
Every year on Christmas morning, Beth Or congregants travel around town “doing mitzvahs,” Marx said. A couple hundred people volunteer for tasks like bringing food to hospital staff members and gifts to children in the hospital. One year, they did a highway cleanup.
Earlier in 2022, Beth Or congregants raised $110,000 for Marx to bring with him to the Jewish Community Center in Krakow to help refugees from the war in Ukraine. The money provided child support to a group of mostly women.
The Maple Glen synagogue also keeps a disaster fund that it can use in any situation. It sent money to Houston after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 100,000 people and to California after the deadly Camp Fire in 2018.
“Our community is all about giving. Giving to one another and giving locally,” said Gwen Silverstein, the synagogue’s president and a member in her 22nd year. “We all believe that we get more from what we give.”
Silverstein, now in her second year as president, said she gets the same type of support that members used to give each other in the temple’s early years. When she needs something, people come, whether it’s a repair, an issue relating to COVID or a financial concern.
The longtime member raised both of her daughters in the synagogue, sending them through preschool, bat mitzvahs and confirmation. Both girls made friends at Beth Or whom they went to camp with and traveled to Israel with. Silverstein said the girls now consider those friends to be family members.
“They got to make new friends and create a Jewish community,” the mother said.
And then hopefully, that micro-community will come back to the bigger one in Maple Glen, explained Amy Abrams, the temple’s executive director and a member for 27 years. Beth Or, even without any founding members left, has many multigenerational families, according to Abrams.
“You want to build Jewish identity in the children so hopefully they will come back with their children,” she said. JE