By Eli Freund ~
MANCHESTER – In the span of 75 years – a milestone marked with a gala celebration on June 3 — Beth Shalom B’nai Israel (BSBI) in Manchester has seen a transformation from its small roots as a local social club in the 1930’s, to the large congregation that is today.
From its inception in 1939, when the original facility was built, the newly formed Manchester congregation held a strong nucleus of families. Today, the congregation remains strong and resilient, despite the recent trend of young families shying away from organized religion.
In 2008, Temple B’nai Israel, a Conservative congregation in Rockville, felt pinned, its membership had declined to an alarming number and a solution had to be found. With membership so low, the shul was forced to shut down its religious school, downgrade to a part-time rabbi and hold on for dear life. Then, Temple Beth Shalom in Manchester approached the failing synagogue with a proposition: Merge with us, create a larger, more diverse membership.
That was the day Beth Shalom B’nai Israel was born.
Looking back on the booms and busts that the Manchester Jewish community and surrounding towns have seen in 75 years, past president Ira Fink is reflective: “Certainly, there are fewer Jewish families moving into the area due, at least partially, to the school system, and the number of older families has diminished due to death or a move to warmer climates. We have synagogues in surrounding towns that weren’t there too many years ago, reducing the size of the pool of Jews who will affiliate. Over the years we have become a regional synagogue, no longer depending only on Manchester and adjacent towns for members. Today we have members from about 25 different zip codes.”
The merger with B’nai Israel was also a strategic move to help make Beth Shalom fiscally and spiritually stronger, says Ira Fink. “The result of the merger was that the B’nai Israel members finally had an active synagogue allowing them a much better Jewish life, similar to what Beth Israel was in its prime.” So while B’nai Israel lacked a community commonality, they more than made up for it in spiritual similarities.
Over the last 75 years, Beth Shalom B’nai Israel has gone through a few transformations, many of them for the sake of survival. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the passion for religious worship and at Temple Beth Shalom B’nai Israel if there’s one thing you can always count on, it’s their insistence on staying relevant, despite a precarious eclimate.