What happens when a synagogue closes or a congregation dwindles to fewer people than it takes to keep it going?
In recent years these closures have been the product of, shall we say, “normal” demographic shifts — as opposed to earlier times when, in much of Europe, the abandonment of these buildings was due to the mass murder of Jews during the Holocaust and/or the suppression of Jewish life and religious practice under communism (or, indeed, the expulsion of Jews from Iberia half a millennium ago…).
Likewise, in the United States, the abandonment of synagogues has come about not by outside destruction, but by demographic changes, including population shifts as congregants leave old neighborhoods and move on to new places.
We posted about this before, in a story in July 2016 about abandoned synagogues in Pennsylvania.
JTA (and other publications) have now run moving stories detailing just how a congregation in Pennsylvania that “ran out of people” recently closed their operations and buried its past, with one final religious service in its synagogue, built in the 1950s, and a funeral for the shul’s ritual objects.
In the JTA article, Alanna E. Cooper, of Case Western Reserve University — who is researching “what congregations do with their material objects when they merge, downsize or shut down” — tells the story of the (rise and) apparently final demise of Congregation Tifereth Israel, founded nearly 125 years ago in New Castle, PA.
New Castle is in the “Rust Belt” — and Tifereth Israel is one of many congregations (or synagogue buildings) in former industrial centers that have shut down. In earlier years, two other synagogue buildings in New Castle had already been closed and sold, as the two congregations in town merged. (The buildings are now churches).
NEW CASTLE, Pa. (JTA) — It was a frigid 10 degrees on Sunday, the last day of 2017, but some 20 people gathered at Congregation Tifereth Israel’s cemetery in this city of 22,000 on the Ohio border. A blue tent and folding chairs had been set up for attendees, and a pit in the ground had been opened.
No hearse would be arriving at this unusual burial, which was not for a person. Still, a few attendees choked up when they greeted each other with hugs and wiped tears from their cheeks. This was a subdued sort of mourning because no friend or relative had been taken from their midst. Nor was the “death” a sudden one. Indeed, the congregation had been preparing for this day for years.
Deep below, the hole was lined with cardboard boxes containing yahrtzeit plaques, tallit prayer shawls and other ritual items that cemetery caretakers had carefully lowered in a few days before.
The mourners had come to bury, in a sense, their synagogue. […]