SHARON — Although not a native of the area, Stanley Bard said it’s easy to understand the emotions surrounding the closing of Temple Beth Israel in Sharon.
As president of the temple, the Brooklyn native started the talk around a year ago among synagogue members about merging with Rodef Sholom Temple in Youngstown and closing the doors here. There had been some quiet chat of this over the past four or five years but Bard thought it was time to bring the issue front and center.
“I put the 800-pound gorilla in the room,’’ he said.
The discussions began and overtures were made to their brethren in Youngstown. As the talks continued, it became clear to the local congregation it was the right thing to do. When put to a vote, it was unanimous.
It wasn’t until construction crews recently began removing religious stained glass artwork on Temple Beth Israel’s windows that it hit him — this was a loss of a home.
“When I walked in the first time and I saw them taking the windows down it grabbed my heart,” Bard said. “I can only imagine what was going on in the minds of people who have been here all of their lives.”
But in many ways, the local congregation will be at home in their new synagogue. The removed windows are being erected in the Youngstown temple and, as it turns out, the same artist created much of the stained glass work there.
With the merger formally effective July 1, the journey to reach that point wasn’t as difficult as many imagined. Although the local temple had the financial resources to continue for another decade, like a number of Christian churches, a dwindling congregation had reached the point of no return.
At its height in the early 1950s the temple’s congregation was believed to have numbered around 500 families. But with demographic shifts and major local industrial plants closing in the late ’70s the congregation numbers began to fall, with many of the remaining members among the temple’s oldest. In the most recent count the temple had 98 families, with 40 percent of those living out of town. Further, a family could be as small as a single person.
A large percentage of the congregation is out of town because under the temple rules a member in good standing, someone who is continuous member who paid in aggregate of at least $5,000 in dues, could get a free plot in its cemetery, Bard said.
Having a part-time rabbi at the temple, when he wasn’t available a member of the congregation would lead a service with sometimes only four or five people present. “With these numbers staring us in the face we realized we had to do something,” Bard said. “We just had fewer and fewer people participating.”
With the congregation’s approval, the temple’s board began holding talks with the Youngstown temple about merging. It quickly became apparent to everyone this was a good match.
“It was hard to tell who wanted the merger more,” Bard said with a smile.
Although the Youngstown temple also is seeing a decline in members, it still has a thriving congregation and was eager to accept the infusion of new blood from Sharon. Joint events were held in which congregation members got to know each other and friendships began to grow.
It didn’t take long for representatives of both congregations to craft a formal merger agreement.
Rodef Sholom Temple is making changes to accommodate local temple members such as holding their service a little later Friday evening, 6 p.m., and might begin even later if needed. Also, events and services will be held in the Shenango Valley on occasion. The last service at Temple Beth Israel already has been held.
Wherever possible religious items and symbols from the local temple will be moved to the Youngstown temple including the Torahs — which cost $40,000 each for new ones because they are hand- written on special parchment.
Historical documents will be turned over to the Mercer County Historical Society and the temple’s outdoor Holocaust memorial will be moved to the Jewish Community Center in Youngstown.
Damaged religious items beyond repair will be taken to the synagogue’s local cemetery and be buried in a Jewish ceremony, called a Geniga. Plaques bearing names of donors mounted throughout the temple honoring donations of items will be offered to donors’ family members. Located at 840 Highland Road, the temple will eventually be available for sale, Bard said.
Opening in 1950, it wasn’t quite ready for Louis and Marlene Epstein’s wedding that year. The Sharon residents and Temple Beth Israel members instead were married in Youngstown. Both of them have close family ties to the local temple as Louis’ father, Samuel Epstein, and Marlene’s stepfather, Dr. David Ekker, were instrumental in ensuring it got built. The couple said they were upbeat on the future of their congregation’s Jewish life.
“We’re optimistic of the merger of the two congregations,’’ Marlene said. “It should result in a much stronger entity, assuring the future survival and future of both congregations.’’
(This story first appeared in the Sharon Herald and is reprinted here with the permission of the paper.)