Wednesday, October 20, 2010

New Bedford synagogue closing after 118 years.

Today's Standard-Times reports that New Bedford's Ahavath Achim Synagogue, one of two Jewish congregations in the city, will be closing in December after 118 years of existence.  The reasons behind the synagogue's imminent demise may sound familiar to readers who have gotten used to hearing similar stories regarding many Catholic parishes:
Nearly 120 years after it opened, Ahavath Achim Synagogue is slated to close at year's end, a victim of declining membership and support.

Ahavath Achim — it means "Brotherly Love" — was founded mostly by Lithuanian immigrants from Vilna. From the old photographs and plaques honoring deceased members to the Torah scroll that local resident Reizel Hiat had handwritten in Jerusalem in 1913, in memory of her husband, Yaakov, the Orthodox synagogue beats with a rich history.

Its congregants received the news via letters from the board of directors sent earlier this week, according to member Stuart Forman, who was asked by Jeffrey Horowitz, board president, to contact The Standard-Times.

"We are all very saddened by this," Forman, a Fairhaven resident, said. "There's a dwindling membership and, therefore, dwindling financial status and it just cannot be kept going."

Rabbi Barry Hartman said he learned about the closing Sunday.

"Money's always been a problem for many years here. We've always struggled along," he said Monday at his office on Ahavath Achim's grounds. Set back from County Street on a leafy lot, the buildings include a social hall, classroom space, a small adjacent chapel and an expansive chapel adorned with brigthly colored velvet, and wood in shades of dark brown and blonde.

. . .

In the summer edition of the [local Jewish] federation's publication, "Jewish Messenger," President Horowitz wrote that due to financial shortfalls, the synagogue was being put up for sale.

"The original plan was to downsize ...," Horowitz said in a Monday e-mail to The Standard-Times, "but after the building didn't sell and our members and donations declined further, we felt it was time to call it quits."

In a separate e-mail, Horowitz wrote that the impending closure, while necessary, "has left a tremendous hole in the hearts of our board."

Nevertheless, Secretary Martin Lipman said he hopes when the building does find a buyer, its proceeds will allow Ahavath Achim to continue in some form.
To read the rest, click here. Articles in the news media often draw attention to the closing of Roman Catholic parishes and falling Mass attendance, but one seldom comes across news stories relating these phenomena to broader trends in religious involvement. Once in a while, the media does take note of the larger issues - as, for example, the Boston Globe did last month in a story about former churches and synagogues going on the real estate market - but articles like these are fairly exceptional. The key point here is that the closure and sale of religious properties due in part to falling attendance isn't simply a 'Catholic problem' - as the story of Ahavath Achim reminds us, it's an issue for other religious groups as well.

Reading about Ahavath Achim, I thought of some well-established Protestant churches in the area where I grew up that have closed in recent years because their shrinking congregations couldn't afford the upkeep of their church buildings. In some cases, the historic churches left vacant by these closings have been converted to secular uses. Not far from my parents' home, the 142-year-old Marion United Methodist Church closed its doors in 2007; the old church was later sold and converted into a preschool and children's daycare center. When the nearby East Rochester Congregational Church closed permanently in 2002, the few remaining members donated their 145-year-old church building to the local Rochester Historical Society for use as a museum.  Despite roots stretching back to 1820, Fairhaven's Centre United Methodist Church closed in 2004 after its membership had dwindled to a handful of mostly elderly attendees. I could add other examples, but I think these three are enough to make a point.

When I consider how many churches in my home area that have closed their doors in the last decade or so, I inevitably begin to think about the larger social trends that are at work. As far as I can tell, the broad decline in civic engagement that political scientist Robert Putnam identified a decade ago in the book Bowling Alone has continued apace. I sometimes wonder whether there is any kind of correlation between the decline in involvement in community organizations and the growth of various kinds of Internet-based 'virtual' communities; I'm sure that most people still have the desire to connect with likeminded individuals, but modern technology gives them the option of doing so at arms length and with less of a sense of personal investment.

To say the very least, it will be interesting to see where the apparent trend toward greater civic disengagement and disaffiliation leads us as a society. Speaking as one who has made a strong and inescapably public commitment to communal and organizational life, I hope that more of my peers and the generations that follow us will come to realize that they need to be part of real-world communities as well as virtual ones. To conclude by returning to the story that prompted this post, I also hope that the congregants of Ahavath Achim Synagogue can find some consolation and a sense of peace as they contemplate an uncertain future. AMDG.


At 10/21/2010 7:55 AM, Blogger Steve said...

One also sees parallels to the VFW, Elks, and other social clubs. Believe it or not, I heard a commercial on the radio yesterday for the Massachusetts Freemasons. This is an organization that supposedly prohibits active recruiting.

At 10/21/2010 7:58 AM, Blogger Robin said...

A couple of blocks from our home, what was once an English Lutheran church now houses luxury condos. A couple of miles away, a Presbyterian Church has been turned into a Boys' and Girls' Club. Beautiful sacred spaces transformed, while in Houston, Joel and Victoria Osteen pack tens of thousands into an auditorium as they preach that God wants us to be rich and successful.

At 10/21/2010 12:00 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


It does seem strange for the Masons to put out recruiting ads, but I suppose it's a sign of the times. I was in the Knights of Columbus when I was in college, and we faced similar woes. Georgetown had a college council, which meant an exclusively college-age membership, but the other councils that we regularly came into contact with were much older. I'm not active in the K of C anymore, so I suppose I've taken part in the same phenomenon that I've been lamenting here!

At 10/21/2010 12:18 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


I wonder what effect that loss of sacred space will have on the larger community. I think I'd rather see former church buildings converted to other uses than torn down, but I wonder what future generations in a presumably more secular society will make of these reminders of 'old-time religion' in their midst.

As for the other megachurches, I think of them more as a blip on the radar than as a major new direction. I remember reading the results of a Pew study from a year or two ago suggesting that more American Christians were dropping out of religious practice altogether than joining megachurches, so it seems like a lot of people aren't going for the Osteens' message.

At 10/21/2010 1:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It may not be the most politic observation, but I think the idea that the government should generously dispense tax money, "no questions asked," to sundry constituencies, be they big banks that bet the farm on a bad bet, other munificent corporations, or, more particularly, to unaffluent students, the unemployed, single parent families, has been incredibly destructive for the America ethos of local communities, be they fraternal or religious.

Not only are such practices wasteful; even worse, in that such practices reward people for bad decisions, and even encourage them, they're clearly immoral. This, of course, is not to say that the poor do not deserve our help.

Pope Benedict wrote in his autobiography that even in his youth, some churchgoers were half-hearted, but went along because it was what the community expected of them. He went on to note that he feels that contemporary society, in which many put themselves above any established morality, is impoverished in comparison. Would that we'd return to our roots.


At 10/21/2010 4:18 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


You may be on to something. I am not generally a critic of 'big government,' but there is a sense in which the bureaucratic state with its various forms of entitlement spending has leapfrogged a lot of local and communal support networks.

I don't know whether the phenomenon that you identify has been a contributing cause of the kind of disengagement that we're talking about, or whether it is simply another symptom of a broader problem that encompasses both issues. I can think, however, of other examples from my experience that seem to bear witness to a broader disengagement. I spent a lot of my youth in local and state politics, where grassroots organization and personal connections were essential. The emphasis on campaigning through the media and television advertising has changed that picture somewhat, even to the point where some candidates scoff at having to go out to talk to voters face to face (or else they'll only do it with cameras present, so they can count on getting some press coverage in the process).

Again, I think the role of the Internet in all of this is worth considering. The 'netroots' phenomenon in politics can be seen as replicating some of the old style of grassroots politicking, but once again doing it in a way that potentially removes the real personal connections that used to be so important.

At 10/23/2010 6:19 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I recognize that this blog's brief are issues religious and not political, and that I am a visitor. And yet, these political issues have a clear if incidental bearing on the practice of religion; from the first people to alight from the Mayflower on, there has been a recognition - and even desire - that the two worlds inform each other.

I think the disengagement from politics you describe is part and parcel of the same pathology I described. People on the whole act rationally; there is good reason to conclude that their withdrawal from politics in recent years is a rational, if unfortunate, decision. Though it is not adequately discussed, since the mid-90s there have been a number of developments, each of which has diminished the returns on investment in the political sphere for average voters, and all of which combined might well explain why many now invest their time elsewhere.

These changes have been the changes in the mid 90s to the laws regulating the concentration of media holdings, which has resulted in the ownership of the major media outlets being concentrated in far fewer corporations, corporations whose sole legal responsibility is to maximize their profits, which they do by first of all making sure to not run afoul of their regulators and their regulators' elected masters, and secondly to rarely roil advertisers and potential advertisers. Critical and controversial investigative reporting - the lifeblood of a vibrant democracy - is generally as popular as holy water is at a satanists' convention.

The second change, which has not received the attention it deserves from the increasingly servile media, has been the changes in how congressional districts are drawn; today it is less America's voters who decide for which candidates from which parties they wish to vote, and more America's two main parties who choose which voters favoring which parties they will have vote for them in which districts, and whose party leaders have been known to tell troublesome congressmen to dance to their leadership's tune, or be redistricted out of the Congress at the next opportunity. The result has been reelection rates in many elections almost reminiscent of the old Soviet Union.

These changes have in turn, facilitated the transfer of many decisions more prudently made at a lower level - be they in healthcare (Medicare, Obamacare), in education, and elsewhere - to the appointees of the Congress, and made scrutiny of the political processes, and of how tax money is spent, so much harder. The deep dislike many now harbor for politicians is no coincidence. More bane has been, at least in my opinion, in that labor went from enjoying too much political power to a little less than it should have.

In short, I do not see how one can try to live as a Christian, and refuse to discharge the works of mercy, and neither do I see wisdom in repudiating the venerable Catholic principle of subsidiarity, least of all for a bowl of pottage.


At 10/23/2010 1:36 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thanks for the follow-up. As for the brief of this blog being "issues religious and not political," I believe that you and I can agree that politics and religion have always been closely intertwined and that this is more or less the natural order of things. If I treat these things as separate on this blog, it is not because I really believe that they are separate but because my vows oblige me to be somewhat more discreet in my public utterances than I might be otherwise.

I think that you are correct in your analysis of the effects of media deregulation. I'm more hesitant to embrace your conclusions on the second point, though, for the simple reason that congressional redistricting has always been a very partisan process (don't forget, I come from the home of the original "Gerrymader") and that hardball tactics of the kind you describe were used to enforce party discipline long before the 1990s. Might one still say, though, that these problems have worsened over time? Yes, probably.

As a related matter, I think that both major parties in the United States have moved more and more to a kind of hierarchical concentration of power in the national leadership that is less a part of the U.S. political tradition than it may be in some other Western democracies. Over the past two decades, there has been a much more concerted effort by national party leaders to determine the outcome of local party nomination contests - in effect, imposing candidates on local party activists rather than allowing candidates to emerge 'organically' at the local level. This has many negative consequences, not simply for the morale and vitality of local party organizations but also for the party as a whole insofar as legitimate ideological diversity (the 'big tent' idea) is harder to maintain when the national party leadership is imposing candidates on the district level who conform themselves to the priorities of the party leaders (and of well-heeled donors and national activists) in a lock-step fashion.

I am all for subsidiarity, but I think its practical scope is up for debate - it may be difficult to reach consensus about what issues are best handled on the local level and which should be managed at higher levels. I would agree that many (or even perhaps most) government services need to be locally controlled to be provided well. At the same time, though, I admit that some things may be done more efficiently if they are placed under the control of a central authority.

I don't think, then, that subsidiarity is a strict 'either/or' proposition. I think we should try to do as much as we can at the local level, but I also acknowledge that some things can be managed better at a higher level. In making judgments about what is best handled at higher levels, though, the fundamental concern should still be the good of people at the local level - if they are going to be better served by central administration in some instance, then so be it.

All of this takes us a long way from Ahavath Achim Synagogue, perhaps, but I think it's fair to conclude that all of these issues are part of an organic whole.

At 10/23/2010 1:38 PM, Blogger Robin said...

I couldn't resist coming back to add this comment, from my morning trip to the vet with my dog. The route home which I chose takes me past a now closed synagogue, which was sold to (Jesuit) John Carroll University. I'm not sure what JCU uses it for -- classes ad offices, I think -- but the stone walls retain their carved Jewish symbols and the sign says JCU Annex. If I recall correctly, the congregation there was Reformed. A few blocks later, on the other side of the street, there stands a sparkling new Orthodox synagogue, one which I've been in many times since I used to teach in an Orthodox Jewish school. Since it's Saturday, there were several men and boys dressed in their traditional black attire, some with tzitzit hanging below their jackets, walking to services.

Not sure what all of this means, except to say that at least on that street, those who are committed to a faith that demands much of them in every aspect of their lives are visible in person and sparing no expense on their places of worship.

At 10/23/2010 4:07 PM, Blogger Joseph Koczera, S.J. said...


Thank you for the comment. Anecdotally, I've seen similar things where I live. One of the neighborhoods adjacent to the SJU campus is heavily Jewish and has a very visible Orthodox community with a number of institutions - including a synagogue housed in a former Presbyterian church. Even though the Orthodox represent a small segment of American Judaism, the aspect of visible commitment that you mention certainly makes a strong impression.

Of course, it's also worth noting that the Ahavath Achim Synagogue mentioned in the original article was itself an Orthodox institution (albeit 'Modern' Orthodox in orientation) and their sense of commitment, admirably strong as it was, still couldn't prevent them from reaching this stage.

I wonder what the members of Ahavath Achim will do in practical terms once the synagogue closes - will they still gather for worship, or will their sense of community effectively cease? The Jewish community in the New Bedford area is very small - they have only two synagogues, one Orthodox and one Conservative - and I would imagine that the loss of this congregation will have a strong impact down the road. It may increase the likelihood of religiously-committed young people moving away in search of a more vibrant Jewish community, while their less-zealous peers simply gravitate away from religious practice altogether. Elders may simply practice their faith privately at home without a community dimension, or they'll also move away (following their children, perhaps). The context may be somewhat different from what we see in the Christian churches, but I think that the issues are ultimately much the same.

At 6/07/2011 10:46 PM, Blogger Ellen said...

I am very interested in the topic of shuls that close and become something else. I wrote THE LOST SYNAGOGUES OF BROOKLYN, and just finished a version about the Bronx and Queens. Most of them became churches, fewer became medical facilities or schools. Two became mosques, at least one became a Hindu temple. One became a museum and one became a discount store. And lastly, one became a nightclub. If you know of any other shuls that clse and become something else, please post or email me at Thanks! Ellen L.


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