According to Bill Rubenstein, co-president of the 149-year-old Reform temple Anshe Emeth in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, the congregation at first couldn’t find a deconsecration service for a Torah. “So we found a consecration service and did it backwards,” he said with a laugh. On June 11, Eugene Levy, the temple’s part-time rabbi for the past three years, conducted the two-hour service, which included reading the names of every single person whose Yahrzeit was observed in the long history of the congregation. About 60 people were there, including current members; former members from as far as Dallas, San Antonio, and Atlanta; representatives from the Jewish Federation of Arkansas; and Pastor Susan Carter Wiggins of the First Presbyterian Church, which had provided the sanctuary for Anshe Emeth for the past three years. At the end, Rubenstein removed the mezuzah and handed the building’s keys to Pastor Wiggins.
It was a bittersweet Shabbat service on an otherwise beautiful summer morning. Like congregations in many other small towns with declining Jewish populations, Anshe Emeth was finally closing its doors in the once-thriving Cotton Belt city. And like these other congregations, Anshe Emeth had to decide what to do with its last two Torah scrolls.
With the assistance of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, the congregation had recently donated one Torah to a congregation in Megiddo, Israel. The last Torah, from which Rabbi Levy read the week’s parsha—the opening chapter of Numbers, concerning the wanderings of the children of Israel—is destined for a fledgling congregation in Guatemala City, Guatemala.
Ironically, the Shabbat desanctification service occurred the morning of Erev Shavuot, the holiday about the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. According to Noah Levine, senior vice president of the Atlanta-based Jewish Community Legacy Project, an organization that helps synagogues like Anshe Emeth plan for their eventual dissolution, the Pine Bluff congregation was giving its Torahs “as their legacy, not just to two congregations, but to Am Yisrael.” Atlantan Karen Kahn Weinberg, whose family has belonged to Anshe Emeth for generations, plans to help transport the Torah to Guatemala this winter. She will coordinate the carrying of the Torah with both the WUPJ and Elyse Goldstein, a Toronto rabbi who has become “mentoring rabbi” of Adat Israel in Guatemala City.
As Goldstein explains, in 2008, her best friend started a Guatemalan children’s nongovernmental organization after she adopted a child from the Central American country. She asked Goldstein to be on the board, but stipulated that she first had to visit Guatemala. Goldstein, who in 1983 became the first female rabbi in Canada, said she was willing, as long as she could attend Shabbat services while there. In her research, she found a “quasi-Orthodox” shul, a Chabad congregation, and “a little group that met in someone’s house.” She was skeptical. “I didn’t know who or what they were,” she said.
With six other women, as well as challot from Toronto, Goldstein attended Friday night services at the fledgling Adat Israel, in someone’s house. “The whole community came to meet us,” she said. “There were 24 beautiful people, passionate about being Jewish.” Some were converts, others were Jews married to non-Jews. Some believed they were descendants of those exiled during the Spanish Inquisition. “Some had Sephardic last names. Some had stories about their grandmother lighting candles on Friday night,” said Goldstein. “They fell in love with me, and I with them. At the end of Shabbat, they said, ‘Don’t leave us.’ I said I would be their volunteer rabbi.”
Since then, Goldstein has traveled to Guatemala once a year. “People in remote areas of the world who want to be Jewish have trouble finding communities to support them as being Jewish,” she said. “Here was a group of people who found each other and were really looking to become a legitimate part of the Reform movement.” They were confused about Jewish ritual, but had done a lot of research. “I helped them become more of a synagogue.” She found Spanish-English prayer books from Costa Rica that were donated to Adat Israel. In 2011, one of the women on Goldstein’s initial trip to Guatemala covered the expenses for six Adat Israel teenagers to attend summer camp in Toronto.
More important, Goldstein introduced the president of the young congregation, Jeannette Orantes, to the World Union. Previously, Adat Israel had a bad experience with a Torah: They thought that it had been donated to them, only to discover it had just been loaned for a short time. At Goldstein’s suggestion, Orantes traveled to a World Union conference in Mexico to make the congregation’s case. They applied for a Torah, explaining why they needed a Torah, and the World Union found the one in Pine Bluff.
Matching a Torah to a needy congregation was nothing new for the World Union. “There are two things a congregation needs: trained leaders and a Torah scroll,” said Union President Daniel Freelander, who personally carried the first Pine Bluff Torah to Megiddo in May. A year ago, he helped a congregation in Rio de Janeiro donate a Torah scroll originally from a Reform congregation in Germany to a new congregation in Shanghai. “Shanghai is a growth area for Jews in the Far East. The World Union has three to five new congregations all over the world each year. And we do four to five Torah transfers a year,” he said. “A Torah scroll is a terrible thing to waste.”
According to WUPJ’s Shira Kestenbaum, the organization facilitated a 2009 Torah donation by Temple Rodef Shalom in Youngstown, Ohio, to Congregation Kadima in Gomel, Belarus. In 2001, Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, California, donated a Torah to a community in Sha’ar Hanegev in Israel. Last year, Temple Shalom in Dallas donated a Torah to Congregation Beth Or in Brisbane, Australia.
But those donor congregations are not shuttering; it’s a more delicate situation when Torahs are donated by a congregation closing down, Freelander said. The closing congregations tend to be in North America, although there are some in South Africa as well. About six or seven years ago, he learned about the Jewish Community Legacy Project. “The work they do is very important,” said Freelander. “Generally, dying congregations won’t admit they won’t be around in five years. It takes courage to talk to JCLP’s David Sarnat and Noah Levine.”
Nearly a decade ago, Sarnat, former head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, was asked to help Temple Sinai in Sumter, South Carolina, create a plan to perpetuate its legacy and arrange for the disbursement of its assets after it ceases to exist. Sarnat was quickly referred to other congregations in need, and he discovered that there were about 150 potential communities across the country with similar experiences of aging membership and changing demographics. Soon there would be no Jewish communities in those towns, and congregations would have to close their doors forever.
“We help the congregations prepare a plan that honorably allows them to leave a legacy, as well as make sure their assets go to aspects of Jewish life that were important to them when they were a vibrant congregation,” Sarnat said. The process, which generally takes one to two years, isn’t easy. Congregations, says Levine, have a fiduciary responsibility. “They must be strategic and do the planning while there’s still a viable board.” The process entails helping congregational leadership assess the realities of their communities, sustain active Jewish life as long as possible, and help create the plan to address the legacy they wish to leave.
The model that JCLP developed connects these diminishing congregations with nearby federations in larger cities. These federations have professional managers of endowment funds, who are able to take responsibility for funds established as part of the legacy plans of these smaller communities. For instance, the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh is managing more than $1.6 million in endowments for congregations in small surrounding towns. In all, JCLP has helped place $5 million in endowments with federations, with $12 million in the pipeline.
JCLP launched with a grant from the Marcus Foundation, and quickly connected with The Union for Reform Judaism, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and the Jewish Federations of North America. It has helped advise 50 communities, most of which are still active, although a half dozen have now dissolved, including the congregation in Pine Bluff and Congregation Meir Chayim in McGehee, Arkansas, which held its desanctification service a week after Anshe Emeth’s. An essential aspect of these legacy plans is a provision for the perpetual care of the congregation’s cemetery, and choices of how to dispose of its assets, including Torahs.
In April, Sarnat facilitated the donation of a Torah by Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle, Pennsylvania, to Beit Centrum Ki Tov, a brand new Progressive congregation in the center of Warsaw, Poland. In a couple of whirlwind weeks, one of the founders of Beit Centrum wrote a letter to the board of Temple Hadar Israel, explaining its need for the Torah, the board unanimously approved the donation, and the Torah was on its way to Los Angeles, where Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, executive director of Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland, was waiting to carry the 85-year-old Torah, originally from Poland, to Warsaw.
According to Freelander, congregations are generally wary of parting with a Torah. In the past, when a congregation has withered, Torah scrolls and other artifacts have sat in the home of the last member when everyone else has died out. “That’s why JCLP is so important,” he said. “And every time there’s an economic reversal, many congregations go out of business. Many closed in the 1930s, and many in the recession of 2008-2009.”
In Guatemala, the members of Adat Israel are eagerly awaiting the Torah donated by Congregation Anshe Emeth. Congregants have already built an Aron Kodesh in which to house the Torah. Rabbi Goldstein, who conducted a Passover Seder at Adat Israel in April, is planning a special dedication service to welcome the Torah when it arrives in a few months. And, there are longer-term plans to sustain the congregation. The 20-year-old daughter of Adat Israel’s Orantes, Rebeca, is finishing college. Her plans for what comes next: an application to Hebrew Union College, for rabbinic school.
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Jan Jaben-Eilon is a correspondent for the Jerusalem Report and has written for other Jewish publications as well as the New York Times and Business Week. She was a founding writer at the Atlanta Business Chronicle.