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Shul Survival Guide

Shira Isenberg

Some shuls lack members, while others desperately need a rabbi. Or maybe the building is too big or the style is not the right fit for the changing neighborhood. Regardless of the challenges they face, congregations that want to survive have found creative ways to keep their doors open and members satisfied.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

When Ari W. was single and supporting himself while learning at Yeshiva University’s RIETS Katz Kollel, he would from time to time spend lonely Shabbosim at the Adath Israel Center, a shul in Long Island City, New York. His friend, Rabbi Josh Friedman, was in charge of enticing young rabbinical students to lein the parshah and give a derashah on Shabbos morning to Adath Israel’s dwindling membership. This particular shul, which could no longer afford to pay a rabbi, was housed in a very large building, which only accentuated the sparse attendance. “Ten or fifteen men would come, all over 60 years old,” Ari says. “They all lived around the neighborhood.” Ari and his counterparts — mostly young men learning at RIETS — would spend Friday nights sleeping on cots in the classrooms. “At night, it was like walking around a ghost shul,” Ari remembers. “The whole experience wasn’t exactly comfortable — we would bring our own food and eat it cold. We were basically stuck in the shul the entire Shabbos.” The one high point — if you like herring and marble cake, that is — was the congregation’s weekly kiddush. Despite its name, Long Island City isn’t a tony suburb; it’s located in Queens. Unlike Long Island proper, the neighborhood is known more for its factories and rail yards than large homes and green spaces. Its one great advantage is that it’s an easy commute to Manhattan over the 59th Street bridge. RabbiFriedman, who now lives inRamatBeitShemesh and is the director of the Lezion B’rina Institute, says that many of the area’s residents left for the suburbs or New Jersey. “Also, some of the shul members were ‘traditional’ and their children were lost to Yiddishkeit.” At the start of the new millennium, despite the writing on the wall, Adath Israel’s members weren’t willing to give up. Even as Orthodox Jews moved away, the shul kept services going, continuing to pay young RIETS students to perform rabbinical duties. “They pushed much longer than most shuls do to keep it going,” saysRabbiFriedman. After years of struggle, the shul eventually sold its building in 2005 to a school, but inserted a clause in the contract that allowed the members to meet in one of the building’s rooms. They used the money from the sale to continue to bring in young men from RIETS to populate the minyan. “It got to a point where I was sending four guys every Shabbos just to make the minyan,”RabbiFriedman says. “That was probably about $300 a week.” The Adath Israel Center has long since closed its doors, merging with another Orthodox shul in the area. Ironically, new condo developments in the neighborhood brought a small resurgence of younger Jewish families into the neighborhood, but it was too little, too late, for Adath Israel.

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