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Changing demographics prompt Bloomfield synagogue to sell its building

By Cindy Mindell

BLOOMFIELD – The story has become a familiar one in modern American Jewish history: as a community grows, so too do its institutions. When demographic trends cause participation in organized Jewish life to decrease, those institutions must adapt.

Connecticut has seen its share of change in the Jewish community over the past decade, with synagogues and other organizations merging and closing. This year opens with a change at Beth Hillel Synagogue in Bloomfield, whose congregation recently voted to sell its building, 60 years after the dedication of its first home.

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Rabbi Gary Atkins of Beth Hillel Synagogue speaks at the Interfaith Thanksgiving Service.

Founded in 1952 by seven local Jewish families, the Conservative Beth Hillel Synagogue opened the doors of a newly-constructed building on Blue Hills Avenue for High Holiday services in 1955. When membership grew to 250 families, the congregation moved to a new home on Wintonbury Avenue in 1966. Three years later, Temple Beth Sholom of Manchester merged with Beth Hillel. In the late 1980s, the congregation expanded its building to accommodate some 1,300 members.

Now, with 230 member families, Beth Hillel owns a physical plant too large for its congregation’s numbers and needs. Over the past year, leaders and members have engaged in a process of research and conversation to determine how to respond to this development.

“We remain a viable and active congregation and therefore need to plan our future accordingly,” says synagogue president Jacqueline Isaacson.

Among the alternatives previously under consideration was the possibility of merging with another local Conservative synagogue. However, according to Isaacson, that alternative was deemed not feasible and was taken off the table two years ago. The congregation has not explored the possibility of a merger with any synagogue since.

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Sen. Joseph Lieberman was congratulated by State Rep. David Baram and Lt. Governor Nancy Wyman at a Beth Hillel Synagogue dinner honoring him in August 2012.

Instead, several months ago the congregation voted overwhelmingly to sell its building. Last month, the Beth Hillel board concluded negotiations with a local church, signing a document of sale with the associated right to use the building for all services and programming until a future course of action is determined. While the sale is contingent on the church formalizing its financing and all the other routine matters that accompany any such transaction, synagogue leadership anticipates a final arrangement by spring.

Rabbi Gary Atkins, who has led Beth Hillel since 2006, has cultivated a personal relationship with the church leadership, helping to explain the synagogue’s ritual-related needs that formed the sale agreement.

“After the successful completion of the purchase, I am confident that Beth Hillel Synagogue will consider its options in the same deliberate and open manner that characterized this step,” Atkins says. “I am happy to be its religious leader.”

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