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End of an Era – New London congregation prepares to pack up and leave its longtime home

By Stacey Dresner

NEW LONDON – Citing a decline in membership dues and budget deficits, Congregation Beth El in New London plans to sell its building to a local educational organization by mid-September.

While a new location for the congregation has not been found yet, Adam Goldstein, president of the synagogue, said that Congregation Beth El will find a new home and go on.

“I think of the sale of our building not as the end of Congregation Beth El but, instead, as the opportunity for us as a community to get a fresh start that positions us correctly for our congregation’s future needs,” he wrote in a May 29 letter to Beth El members. “This start will enable us to explore many opportunities together, less encumbered by our beautiful, but unnecessarily large, aging, and difficult-to-maintain building.”

According to the letter, the synagogue expects to have a purchase and sale (PAS) agreement from LEARN, a company that runs magnet schools, by the middle of June, followed by inspections and a due diligence period.

According to the terms of the sale, Beth El would be able to hold its 2017 High Holiday services in their longtime home at 660 Ocean Ave. – situated aptly just a mile from the waterfront – but would move out of the building by Oct. 31.

Congregation Beth El was founded in 1932. The Ocean Avenue building was constructed in the 1970s.

“Our building was constructed during a period of time when our congregation had a much greater number of members than we do today,” Goldstein said in the letter. “In addition to our building’s size exceeding our current capacity, over the years, it has become increasingly difficult for us to maintain the building in operable condition, due to both declining dues and the ever-increasing costs of repairs and maintenance.”

According to Goldstein, Beth El will close this fiscal year with a deficit of approximately $80,000 despite an effort by the board to raise funds and save money. He estimated that the deficit for the 2017-2018 fiscal year would be approximately $100,000.

“Financially, we simply cannot continue in this way,” he told his members.

The sale will also affect Solomon Schechter Academy (SSA), the Jewish day school that rents space in Beth El’s lower level.

“With the sale of the building we will be moving as well, but we are looking at it with excitement,” said Barbara Wolfe, Solomon Schechter’s head of school. “It’s a new venture – a new chapter for us.”

Wolfe said SSA is not ready to announce where it might move because it has not been “solidified,” but that they would most likely make announcement sometime soon.

“The board at SSA has been working really hard to find a new location for where we can continue to excel and grow.”

Despite the fact that Congregation Beth El’s real estate committee has been looking into selling the building for more than two years, Goldstein admitted that some members are not likely to be happy with the sale.

“I am sure that for many of you, the sale and moving out of our long-time home is not welcome news. Like you, my heart is in our current building. My family and I were warmly welcomed to Beth El by many of you when we moved to the area. My children studied in this building, learned Torah in this building, and were bar and bat mitzvah in this building.

“I appreciate that many of you have a much longer affiliation with Beth El than I do. Many of you attended Hebrew school and were married in Beth El. To all of us, Beth El is our religious home. But a home is much more than the building that contains it; a home is really about the people and the experiences they share together. We will still have a religious home at Beth El, wherever that may ultimately be.”

Jerry Fischer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Eastern Connecticut, has been a member of Beth El since 1984.

His children celebrated their b’nai mitzvah there and he fondly recalls holding two birthday parties for his mother at Beth El.

“We are very sad,” Fischer told the Ledger. “My daughter came down from New York City this weekend and she was so sad. Everybody is sad. It is no fun when you have to do something like this. But the congregation will go on. It will be an opportunity not just for Beth El but I think for all of the congregations to perhaps realign or cooperate and make it less stressful financially to keep things going,” Fischer noted that several outside factors – including the closing of Pfizer’s large office complex in 2009 and the Navy’s decision to move a piece of its underwater sonar center out of the area – took jobs away from the community.

“We are an aging community and we lost a source of Jewish families coming into our community, so I don’t think we are unique in Connecticut or in fact the country with this challenge,” he said. “But perhaps this decision will give us a chance to operate without the financial pressures.”

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