In 2012, Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El began renting a small wing in the corner of a much larger synagogue, Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel. During COVID, its membership fell from more than 200 to about 140, according to President Shelley Schwartz. And in 2023 as it reopened, it hired a rabbi, Saul Grife, to try to attract some new members.
But while Grife helped bring in six new congregants last summer, just as many departed, according to Schwartz.
The problem far predates Grife. Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El has not had younger members in “many years,” said its cantor, Stephen Freedman, to the Jewish Exponent in January 2023.
So now, this Old York Road synagogue is moving out of the home of another Old York Road synagogue and joining with yet another: Congregation Adath Jeshurun, a short drive down the street.
Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El will move on July 1. But unification is already official, according to leaders at both synagogues.
“My predecessors were very committed to staying on the Old York Road corridor,” Schwartz said. “I was also committed to staying in this area.”
Schwartz wanted to stay in the corridor because her members still live there. Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El leaders looked at joining the Germantown Jewish Centre in Mount Airy, the Congregations of Shaare Shamayim in Northeast Philadelphia and Darchei Noam in Ambler. They also considered Beth Sholom Congregation, another Conservative synagogue on Old York Road.
But in the end, Adath Jeshurun was the most accommodating. Its leaders allowed Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El to maintain its flexible structure for paying dues. They also said that Melrose could build a museum in an AJ room for its artifacts.
“Here’s our stained-glass windows. Here’s our memorial plaque. It’ll have things they can touch and feel and remember,” Schwartz said. “That was very important.”
Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El congregants have already joined Adath Jeshurun’s email lists so they can “take advantage of programming right now,” Schwartz said. The smaller synagogue will shut its side doors in KI on June 30. But Schwartz will keep the office and website operational until Sept. 1 in case there are stragglers.
Once Melrose becomes part of AJ, it will get seats on the larger synagogue’s board of directors. The new partnership will combine AJ’s congregation of a little less than 400 households with Melrose’s 140. That should help both shuls survive longer. But neither synagogue has a large generation of young families.
While Adath Jeshurun has a preschool and religious school, only 20% of its members have kids enrolled, according to synagogue leaders.
Dr. Harry Lessig, the incoming president of AJ and a member since the 1950s, said his shul didn’t welcome its neighbor for money.
“Basically, we’re doing the right thing,” he said.
Schwartz explained that Melrose had to make the move because it never had a big enough endowment to use when membership declined. AJ has an endowment, but it is already using the interest on it to make payments, according to Lessig.
“It’s not going to erase the deficits we have,” the incoming president said of the unification.
But it will keep both congregations going for the people involved. It’s also possible that an additional 140 congregants may bring in kids and grandkids.
Schwartz’s son, Jacob Schwartz, just moved with his wife and daughter into a home that’s nine doors down from his mother. The young family has joined Adath Jeshurun and the young daughter, Olivia, is attending AJ’s preschool.
“Maybe they’ll stay at AJ,” Schwartz said. “And maybe other kids who they are friendly with will stay at AJ.”
Lessig’s daughter is also now a member of Adath Jeshurun.
“We’re hoping we’ll slowly start rejuvenating,” he said.
AJ leaders plan on spreading the word about the synagogue through emails, social media posts and visits to local neighborhoods, according to Lessig. It is also going to start “young people’s groups” and “have specific services and educational programs aimed at preschoolers and kindergartners and first graders.”
On Old York Road, Adath Jeshurun and Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El are now one. Beth Sholom Congregation leases space in its building to another synagogue, Congregation Kol Ami. And KI now stands alone again.
AJ, Melrose and Beth Sholom are Conservative. Kol Ami and KI are Reform. All are struggling with declining membership.
“The question we can’t answer is, why are the eastern suburbs not drawing younger Conservative Jews?” Lessig asked.