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Two New Haven congregations join forces

Congregation Sinai merges with BEKI

By Stacey Dresner

NEW HAVEN – With its aging membership too small to stay open, Congregation Sinai of West Haven and Milford has closed after nearly 90 years, merging with Beth El-Keser Israel (BEKI) of New Haven.

Congregation Sinai held its final formal service last Yom Kippur.

“Everyone wanted to have one last yontef together. Which we did… everyone wept and said goodbye,” said Diane Krevolin of West Haven, who served as Congregation Sinai’s president at the time of its closing.

The two congregations signed a memorandum of understanding and Congregation Sinai turned over its list of 50 members to BEKI, which welcomed these new members during Chanukah Shabbat services.

“They have been extremely welcoming and that was one of the things we were looking for. I got a beautiful letter from Rabbi [Jon-Jay] Tilsen when we officially joined,” Krevolin said.

“The most important aspect, we all agreed, was to be respectful of other members of the greater Jewish community who were in need of a new home,” said Harold Birn, president of BEKI. “While in the end it was not a merger, in the traditional sense, the BEKI Board entered into an agreement with Congregation Sinai so as to welcome their membership into our community, to help meet the needs of their members and help preserve the long history of their congregation.”

Despite the welcome that BEKI has provided, Krevolin, who grew up at Congregation Sinai, said this has been a sad time for her and for all of the synagogue’s members.

“This is the only synagogue I have ever known. It is very upsetting,” she said.

Founded in 1929, Congregation Sinai was located on Washington Avenue in West Haven for many years and was led by longtime rabbis including Leon Mirsky and Larry Heimer.

In 2006, the congregation, already dealing with an aging congregation, sold its 78-year-old building in West Haven to a local church. The next year the synagogue, under the leadership of its last full-time rabbi, Dana Bogatz, moved to Milford, becoming Congregation Sinai of West Haven and Milford.

“It’s an aging congregation and at that point, a lot of people had moved to Florida,” Krevolin explained. “The building was just too big for us to sustain so we sold it and went to rented quarters in Milford.”

The congregation declined further as congregants passed away over the next decade.

“Today I have to go to a funeral; one of our nonegenarians died,” Krevolin said to illustrate that fact. “We have a preponderance of 80- and 90-year-old people. We did have a little core of younger people and a Hebrew school up to this year. It was a small but independent Hebrew school and our last bar mitzvah was last June, I think. So we were a fully functioning congregation.”

Rabbi Gerry Ginsburg served as part-time rabbi at the end and lay leaders took over many of the functions.

Congregation Sinai’s leaders started thinking about closing last spring.

“It was very difficult. We were tapping the members for extra money just to get our bills paid and we voted that we would explore the possibility of merging,” Krevolin said. “Going out of business was on the table but people didn’t want to do that. So we went around to the different synagogues and went to different services to see what they were like.”

After talking with the boards of the synagogues and receiving proposals, Sinai’s members voted to go with BEKI.

“When you dismantle a synagogue you have a whole lot of religious items and you can’t exactly put them at the curb. When you close up you have to find a home for them. And BEKI was the most receptive,” Krevolin said. “They said, ‘We have room in our building; we will accommodate you as much as we can.’”

Ultimately, she said, the congregation is hoping to move all of its belongings.

“Spiritually we have moved, but physically we haven’t completely moved as yet,” she said.

Congregation Sinai plans to bring to BEKI its sifrei Torah which Birn says will be incorporated into BEKI’s services, as well as an aron qodesh (holy ark) for storage of sifrei Torah and other religious writings. Additionally, the congregation is bringing over a set of stained glass windows, its large memorial board and Tree of Life, which Krevolin says will make the move easier for Congregation Sinai members.

“People feel at home looking at these things. They are familiar objects and BEKI fortunately has a large building and was willing to accommodate us with a lot of our religious items,” she said. “Everyone was so upset when we had to close….We were concerned about continuation…and BEKI has afforded us that.”

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