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Synagogues' declining membership: How they keep the faith

Pastor Patrick Francis of the Christian Family Worship

Pastor Patrick Francis of the Christian Family Worship Center and Mike Eisman, co-president of the Baldwin Jewish Center. The Jewish congregation has rented their main temple to pastor Francis while they are now holding their worship services in the basemant of the building. (June 23, 2010) Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa

The rabbi's voice broke the silence as he solemnly recited centuries-old Hebrew prayers to a half-dozen elderly congregants sitting amid mostly empty pews in the small, dim sanctuary at the Baldwin Jewish Center.

Faced with the prospect of closing its doors because of declining membership and funds, the synagogue began holding its services on the first floor while renting its main sanctuary upstairs to another religious group.

The rental is part of a growing trend by Jewish congregations on Long Island. Synagogues are merging, closing or renting out space to outside groups to stay alive amid a historic dip in the Jewish population here. In the past few years alone, some 20 congregations have merged into 10. Most were in Nassau and are reform or conservative denominations.

The Baldwin Jewish Center started renting to the Christian Family Worship Center, a nondenominational Christian Pentecostal group, in November because it could no longer afford to operate the building on its own, said Michael Eisman, one of the center's co-presidents. Its active congregation has declined from a peak of 300 families in the early 1970s to 50 today.

"It's very hard. This was my home," said Baldwin resident Fredda Wolk, 73, who has worshipped at the synagogue her entire life and whose father was one of its founders. "I can hear his voice singing the same songs I am singing."

Meanwhile, the nearby Malverne Jewish Center is planning to sell its building to a Protestant evangelical group because of declining membership, said Herbert Brodsky, the synagogue's president. "You have to deal with reality," he said.

The synagogue, founded in the 1950s, has fewer than 100 active members today. Brodsky said the Jewish congregants plan to sign a 10-year lease with the buyers to allow them to rent about 25 percent of the building so they can continue to worship.

A reversing trend

The number of synagogues on Long Island boomed in the 1950s and 1960s as many Jews migrated from New York City to the suburbs, said Rabbi Charles Klein, head of the Merrick Jewish Center and former president of the New York Board of Rabbis.

But now many of that generation are aging or have died, and younger Jews who might replace them are remaining in the city or moving elsewhere because of the high cost of living on Long Island, he said. What's more, the percentage of Jews who belong to synagogues has dropped, partly because of the younger generation's reluctance to embrace religion and tradition, a problem facing some other religions as well, he said.

"It's an enormous problem," Klein said, adding that rabbis must become especially adept at managing their synagogues - and their finances - to keep afloat. Some, including Klein, plan to attend classes at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University designed specifically for rabbis.

In Nassau and Suffolk, the total population of affiliated and unaffiliated Jews dropped from about 408,000 to 301,000 between 1981 and 2001, according to the Syosset-based UJA-Federation.

At the Congregation B'nai Israel in Freeport, about a mile from the Baldwin center, synagogue leaders rent out part of the basement to a Spanish-language Christian fundamentalist church. The synagogue also rents classroom space to the Freeport school district for an alternative high school, though it is leaving due to budget cuts and the synagogue must find another tenant.

"We couldn't survive" without the extra income from the rentals, which account for about 50 percent of the synagogue's budget, said Marilyn Gales, a co-president of the 160-member synagogue. "Our survival is at stake."

Sharing space has its challenges

Rev. Miguel Castillo, pastor of the Iglesia Cristiana Fundamental, said moving into the synagogue was not always easy because of the two different religions. His group has to be careful not to bring in certain nonkosher foods such as pork, and is prohibited from erecting crosses.

But both groups say the relationship has grown. Though their services and activities are generally separate, members of the Christian group recently sang a song, which they memorized in Hebrew, at an event honoring the synagogue's rabbi, Paul Hoffman.

Synagogues are not the only institutions renting out space to other religious groups. It sometimes works in reverse. The Cutchogue Presbyterian Church rents space to the North Fork Reform Synagogue, not only for financial reasons but because the interfaith mingling "has added something to our church," said church leader Tom Wickham.

At the Baldwin center, the Jewish congregation has signed a five-year lease with the Pentecostal group, which hopes to buy the building well before the lease is up. Members of the Jewish group said they would most likely leave and move to another location such as a house.

That would carry some irony, because the congregation began in a house 80 years ago before constructing the building on Seaman Avenue in 1947. "This is our home for 60 years. All of a sudden you are sharing your home," Eisman said. "How do you feel? But you do what you have to do."

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