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Sign of the times in Jewish suburbia

After only 15 years, a Cheshire synagogue closes its doors

By Cindy Mindell

 

kol amiCHESHIRE – This year marks the 125th anniversary of Temple B’nai Abraham, a Conservative congregation in Meriden. Fifteen years ago, the milestone must have seemed like an impossibility, when the synagogue was on the verge of a merger with Beth El Synagogue in Waterbury. The idea was floated by members of both boards as a way to attract more young congregants to the two aging synagogues. If passed, the new united congregation would move to Cheshire, centrally located in a region that was attracting many young families.

When congregants rejected the proposal in June 1998, some members of both synagogues got together and formed a new Conservative entity, Kol Ami in Cheshire. They drew participants from the surrounding communities and were led by Andrew Hechtman, a Cheshire resident who had served as the temporary spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Abraham and later earned ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in New York City.

Beth El Synagogue sold its building in 2001 to a new yeshiva community in Waterbury, Torah Umesorah.

Now, facing the same issues that led to the proposed merger 15 years ago – an aging congregation and a dwindling membership – Kol Ami is closing. The congregation will come together one last time to celebrate Shabbat on June 7.

The group first worshiped at Temple Beth David, the Reform synagogue in Cheshire; the two congregations would work together over the years on programs and services. Kol Ami then rented space in the local Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

Rabbi Joshua Ratner

Rabbi Joshua Ratner

When Beth Israel Synagogue in Bristol closed its doors in 2000, it bequeathed its ritual items and cemetery to Kol Ami. Beth Israel’s generosity went beyond sacred items. After the congregation sold its building on Orchard Street, it donated the remaining $240,000 in its general fund to Kol Ami, which was used to renovate a former office and showroom space on Highland Avenue in Cheshire. Beth Israel’s congregants were made lifetime members of Kol Ami.

The new synagogue opened in March 2001, securing a certificate of occupancy 20 hours before celebrating its first bar mitzvah in the new building. The congregation hired its first and only full-time cantor, Dorothy Goldberg, in 2010. Goldberg left in 2011; Hechtman left in 2012, when Rabbi Joshua Ratner took over as spiritual leader.

At its peak, Kol Ami numbered some 100 member households, with 150 participants at High Holiday services last year. Many, like Board president Craig Goldstein, who moved to Cheshire with his wife Tanya in 2007 and joined Kol Ami for their first daughter’s baby-naming ceremony, found in Kov Ami a warm and comfortable home.

“We found a welcoming environment and a very friendly atmosphere,” he says of the congregation.”

It was better days for Congregation Kol Ami when, in October 2011, synagogue members of all shapes, sizes and breeds gathered for the congregation’s first “Bark Mitzvah,” a blessing of animals, and celebration of the reading of the Noah story in the book of Genesis.

It was better days for Congregation Kol Ami when, in October 2011, synagogue members of all shapes, sizes and breeds gathered for the congregation’s first “Bark Mitzvah,” a blessing of animals, and celebration of the reading of the Noah story in the book of Genesis.

But the congregation was steadily losing members, down to 60 units this year and 30 children in the religious school. Last year, the congregation tried to draw new members by offering free religious school tuition for students entering pre-K, kindergarten, and first grade, regardless of synagogue affiliation. But with an aging congregation and few new Jewish families moving into the area, it became difficult to gather a Shabbat morning minyan, and most congregants were showing up less and less for services and events.

After discussing options like merging or relocating, the congregation decided to close its doors. In early April, Ratner and Craig Goldstein sent a letter to congregants, informing them of the decision to close. After its final Shabbat morning service on June 7, Kol Ami will pass along its ritual items to area synagogues and Jewish organizations. One Torah scroll will be donated to the Jewish High School of Connecticut, now housed at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven in Woodbridge.

“The decision to close was based on numbers and economics,” Goldstein says. “The Board recognized that, going into the future, we didn’t have the critical mass to sustain a synagogue.”

Congregants who are still active have made alternate arrangements with other area synagogues, says Ratner, who succeeded Lauri Lowell as director of the Greater New Haven Jewish Community Relations Council in August 2013 and will continue in that role.

Kol Ami religious school students on the first day of class in Sept. 2013. Most of the shul’s students will now attend Temple Beth Sholom in Hamden. Photo credit: Eve Gold

Kol Ami religious school students on the first day of class in Sept. 2013. Most of the shul’s students will now attend Temple Beth Sholom in Hamden. Photo credit: Eve Gold

According to Ratner, most of the religious school students will attend Temple Beth Sholom in Hamden. The cemetery in Bristol will be run by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven Cemetery Association, which will also take over all financial assets remaining in the Kol Ami cemetery account.

“All local synagogues have been very helpful and welcoming to our members who are in need,” Goldstein says. “Kol Ami is a special synagogue whose members share a very unique bond that I think will continue, even though the organization will no longer be in existence. Rabbi Ratner has been a true asset to the organization,” he says.

While it is unquestionably a loss to those who worked to create and sustain the Cheshire synagogue, Kol Ami’s closing is not unusual in the recent history of suburban Jewish America, Ratner says.

“Since we over-built synagogues in the post-World War Two era, it’s going to be a lot harder to have sustainable synagogue communities outside larger cities or suburbs,” he says.

 

Comments? email cindym@jewishledger.com.

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