In a “heartbreaking” blow to the Reform community in Livingston that signals shifting demographics and economic realities, Temple Emanu-El of West Essex will close its doors at the end of June.
The move was voted on by the congregation membership in a town hall meeting on Feb. 13. The synagogue board has also taken steps to merge with Temple Sinai in Summit, pending membership approval by both congregations.
According to an email sent on Feb. 14 to Emanu-El members by the president, John H. Norton, finances were the driving force behind the decision. The letter mentions a search for “revenue enhancements, budget reduction, scaling back of our temple facility and resources,” and joining another congregation. The email also pointed out that voting no on the merger could result in a default on the building’s mortgage.
“It’s heartbreaking. But every ending is a new beginning,” said Beth Sher, a member for 29 years who was involved at Emanu-El as a teenager in the youth group. “It’s very unfortunate when the economics are such that our institutions can’t survive. But there’s an incredibly strong core of people at Emanu-El who are dedicated to Reform Judaism and to preserving the history of Emanu-El.”
The email sent to the congregation’s 300 family members mapped out various logistics, from managing dates for b’nei mitzvah (all of those scheduled through the end of June will occur at Temple Emanu-El; everything else will be worked out pending a merger with Temple Sinai); to determining closing dates for the early childhood center (not later than April 30) and the religious school (May, as originally planned), to deciding which programming, like adult education, will continue as scheduled.
Norton also discussed the emotional toll the decision takes on a community. “We recognize that many of you currently feel a sense of loss, anxiety, anger, and outright sadness as 61 years of being a mishpucha is coming to a close,” he wrote. “
Temple Sinai’s top priority, according to Joshua Friedlander, president of the board of trustees, is to “support fellow Jews who reached out to us in a time of need.”
In his email to NJJN he added, “there are no details to share publicly as both congregations are working through what this union could mean and how both communities could emerge stronger, together.”
Temple Sinai hosted an informational “meet and greet” Monday evening.
Ian Singer of New Providence, a member of the board of Temple Sinai, was quick to welcome Emanu-El members as they made their way inside. He told NJJN, “It’s a sad thing when [this happens to] a longstanding community pillar, particularly in the Jewish community. We want to be as supportive as we can.”
The decision to close comes on the heels of upheaval in the community: it follows the abrupt departure in May 2016 of Rabbi Greg Litcofsky, who had led the synagogue since July 2012, as well as its cantor, Joshua Gavin Finkel, who had been there since 2014. Since the summer, the congregation has had an interim rabbi, Marc Disick, and an interim cantor, Lori Corrsin.
Temple Emanu-El of West Essex was founded in 1955 by 11 Livingston families. In 1961 they broke ground on their building on Northfield Avenue, designed to evoke the tents of the Israelites in the desert. The congregation undertook a major renovation in 2004 and a smaller one, focusing on the sanctuary, in 2011. It has had eight rabbis since its inception, including Rabbi Peter Kasdan, now rabbi emeritus, who served from 1971 to 2001, and under whose leadership the congregation established itself as a community leader in social action.
In 2004, it became the first Jewish-run, full-day child-care facility in Livingston and the second in the Greater MetroWest area. It was also among the first synagogues in the country to experiment with a voluntary dues model in 2013. (By 2015 about 30 synagogues nationwide were doing so, along with a handful of local synagogues.)
Heading into Monday’s meeting, members of Emanu-El expressed sadness.
Glenn Turtletaub said, “We’re not happy. It’s not what anyone wanted. It’s sad for us, it’s sad for the temple, and it’s sad for the Jewish community.” His wife Debbie added that even if they like Temple Sinai there will still be challenges, especially when it comes to their grown daughters, now in their 20s. “My girls grew up at Emanu-El. When they come home for holidays, they aren’t going to want to go somewhere else.”
Norman Leit, who arrived with his wife Carol and his son Richard, said, “It’s a tragedy. We’ve been members for 40 years. Richard and his brother were bar mitzvahed at Emanu-El. I would prefer it didn’t happen. But it has happened, so we’ll have to deal with it.”
A member of Emanu-El’s board who declined to give his name focused on the frustrations encountered trying to keep the synagogue open. “We’ve been trying to keep the place going — but every time we take one step forward it’s been two steps backwards.”
Sher credited the board with its attempts to save the congregation and while she said a merger might not feel “adequate” right now, she added, “It will eventually feel like home. It’s the people that make the institution, not the building.”
The leadership of Temple Emanu-El declined to comment for this story.