What do Bukharan Jews in the early 1990s and small-town American Jews today have in common? Other than their being, you know, Jewish?
Alanna Cooper, a cultural anthropologist who’s the Abba Hillel Silver chair of Jewish studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland — and who will be scholar in residence at Kehilat Kesher in Englewood this Shabbat — began her career doing field work in Uzbekistan; by happenstance, she was there when the Soviet Union fell and most of the Bukharan Jews made aliyah. “I was traveling back and forth at the exact moment when the mass migration happened,” Dr. Cooper said.
Her book, “Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism,” published in 2012, looked at “one of the longest diasporas as it came to an end,” Dr. Cooper said. “It was a difficult and traumatic change.” She talked to members of the Bukharan community both before they left home, and then in the United States and Israel, where they reestablished themselves.
“One of the things that I was most interested in, but didn’t follow through on, was that it wasn’t just that people left. It was what they were leaving — shuls, schools, beautiful homes, physical structures. Years later, after I finished the book, I wondered what happened with the objects that remain. What happens to the physical objects?”
To research that question as thoroughly as possible, though, she’d have to go back to Central Asia, and she no longer was able to do that; her career and her life bound her more closely to her university than it had before.
She’d often go to Jewish communities to speak about her research, she said; “when I moved to Cleveland, I would go to some communities just an hour or two away, in western Pennsylvania. And I have a clear memory of someone in one of those synagogues saying to me, ‘Why are you even thinking about going over to Uzbekistan to answer these questions? We have the same things — the same issues, the same questions — happening right here.
“We are getting ready to leave our building. What do we do with the stained-glass windows? What do we do with the yahrzeit plaques?’”
What do they do with all the material objects that made up their communal life?
To pull back, this story is based on the truth that American Jewish religious life — and beyond that, American religious life in general — is changing. Fewer people are connecting to shuls, or to churches, or to whatever they might call the religious community with which their parents identified. Many people say they’re “just spiritual”; others don’t even feel that much connection to religion. In the Jewish world, an increasing number of people say that instead of being part of one of the Jewish streams, they’re “just Jewish.”
It’s hard to make a minyan without people showing up. It’s hard to pay the rent, or the mortgage, or the clergy.
So around the country, synagogues are downsizing, merging, or even simply closing.
Like the Bukharan Jews, the people who stay behind have to figure out what to do with the material objects that also remain.
As an academic, Dr. Cooper said, it is not her job to tell people how to handle that emotionally taxing problem, but as a cultural anthropologist, it became her job to document how they did it.
Her ongoing research, her as-yet-unpublished new book, “Disposing of the Sacred: American Jewish Congregations in the 21st Century,” and some of her talks at Kesher will focus on that question.
“It is important for us to document the ending of a chapter in American Jewish history,” she said.
It’s often not a subject people choose to consider, she continued. “We celebrate when institutions are founded,” she said. “We love the groundbreakings and the galas. But we also have to recognize and take stock of what happens at the other end of the life cycle.
“I pay a lot of attention to the individuals who have taken upon themselves the burden and responsibility of closing up. It’s not a position of glory. It’s one thing to put on the hard hat and hold the shovel. It’s another when there’s no one around to acknowledge what you do.”
It’s unglamorous, thankless work.
Although there are many synagogues in metropolitan areas that cannot maintain themselves, “when they dissolve, they will merge with one another,” Dr. Cooper said. “The merging is interesting to me, but the extreme examples are more compelling. There are examples of congregations that are the only ones within 50 or 75 miles. When they close, they have very serious decisions to make.”
She’s looked at shuls in places like Brookhaven, Mississippi; Natchez, Tennessee; and Manitowoc, Wisconsin — “places where were almost no Jews anymore. They close, and that’s it. They thought about merging with a synagogue 40 minutes away. But it’s not like they had any connections there.”
Dr. Cooper told the story of a synagogue in New Castle, in Pennsylvania’s far western Rust Belt. “Their story is very typical,” she said, although of course every story is different. Each community has its own idiosyncrasies of history and culture.
“The Jewish community in New Castle was there since the 1860s,” she said. Like many Jewish communities outside big cities, it was founded by peddlers who settled there. “Like a lot of small towns, it had two synagogues,” she continued. “One was for the wealthier German Jews — it was Reform — and the other was for more traditional, less affluent eastern European Orthodox Jews. In its heyday there were about 300 Jewish families in the town.”
Although there would be couples who joked that they were intermarried if one of them came from the Reform community and the other from the Orthodox, “they socialized with each other, and over time, there were tremendous social connections between them.”
Everything was fine until the 1970s, when “the downturn started,” Dr. Cooper said. “The first step they took was typical. The two congregations merged their religious schools. And then, after a decade or so, they tried to merge the two congregations totally. It was very difficult and painful; there were arguments and there was conflict, but finally they were able to merge.”
Often such a merge is not possible, she added, if the ideological and theological disagreements are too deep.
“But this was a success story,” she said. “I think of it like a marriage. They changed their names. The Reform one had been Temple Israel, and the Orthodox one, which by then had become Conservative, was Tifereth Israel. “They called themselves Temple Hadar Israel,” she said; they took the Temple from the Reform synagogue, they’d both used the name Israel, and Tifereth and Hadar mean just about the same thing — splendor or glory — and Hadar is easier to spell.
“It also was like a marriage in that they joined property. Temple Israel was older and in not as good shape as Tifereth Israel, so they decided to sell it and use the money from the sale for the newer building. The finances and the objects in both were merged.
“People from Temple Israel wanted to feel like the shul was home for them too, so they brought their Torah scrolls and stained-glass windows with them.” Some of the money from the sale went to install the windows into a wall that had been created for them; other parts of the building were renovated. They figured out how to create services that would feel comfortable to everyone.
“That gave the congregation new life,” Dr. Cooper said. “More people, more excitement, a project to work on together. When I look at the minutes from that time, I see that the mood was celebratory.
“In retrospect, it gave them another few years.
“But everyone sort of knew that it didn’t mean that new people were moving in. The area was becoming depressed. Over maybe 30 years, the number of people living in New Castle went from 40,000 to 20,000. Big box stores were coming in, a highway was coming through. The town wasn’t the place it had been.”
Like so many other New Castle natives, many Jews moved away. Many of the Jews most interested in an active Jewish life chose to move to places with a more vibrant Jewish community. The downward spiral continued.
“So by around 2013, 2014, they decided that they” — Temple Hadar Israel’s members — “wanted to stay alive as long as possible, but that they’d begin to think about and prepare for the end,” Dr. Cooper said.
“They got help from the Jewish Community Legacy Project,” she continued. “They were super lucky in that they were able to sell the building and reach an agreement with the new owners that allowed them to rent back the sanctuary at a very reasonable price, so that the burden of caring for it was relieved and they still could meet in a familiar space.
“That’s what the Jewish Community Legacy Project does. It encourages people to set up a demarcation point. They say, ‘We will continue for as long as we are able to, until X happens. The community makes the decision about what X is — I believe that here it was until they were unable to muster the people and the energy to organize a High Holiday service.
“Then, it was okay. It’s time.”
The New Castle community decided that instead of trying to merge with another synagogue fairly far away, each member would decide where to go after their shul closed. They also made decisions about where the remaining assets would go.
Some were easy. Sifrei Torah are valuable and in demand. One went to a summer camp, one to a Jewish community in Poland, one to an emerging community in Indonesia. “They gave the scrolls away in very creative, interesting ways,” Dr. Cooper said.
But “the plaques are a huge problem.” The community tried to find the families to whom they belonged, and some of those people wanted the plaques, but some did not, and others could not be found.
So, “on the last day of the congregation’s existence, they had a funeral,” Dr. Cooper said. “They buried some of the shaimot” — the books or documents that contained the name of God and therefore could not be discarded — “and the plaques, and they set up a tent for the mourners.
“And they said kaddish.”
She was there, Dr. Cooper said. It was an emotional ceremony.
“They had a stone set in the cemetery, and a year later they had an unveiling.” The message was: “This is a place that marks that we had a history. There was a vibrant Jewish community there, and we will honor it.
“It was not depressing,” Dr. Cooper said. “It was sobering.”
Max Kleinman of Fairfield, the CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest from 1995 to 2014, is a consultant for the Jewish Legacy Project.
“The JLCP is transdenominational,” he said. “It deals with small synagogues all over the United States, to either help them develop renewal plans, if they have a future, or help with mergers or with an exit strategy. It can help them plan to sell off their assets, including their sifrei Torah, and to help them find a place to store their archives and set up endowment funds.
“More than $8.5 million of assets from the sale of buildings have been invested in Jewish community foundations over the last five years or so,” he continued. “The leadership of the synagogues can either use the income from the endowments, which they control, to go to smaller quarters, or to fund, say, a Meals on Wheels program, or Jewish camps.
“This is an increasingly pressing program because so many synagogues cannot continue to maintain their buildings.
“We work with over 100 synagogues currently, and we have contact with another 100 or so,” Mr. Kleinman continued. “This is against the backdrop of the major denominations cutting back on service to the smaller synagogues.
“We are trying to fill that gap.”
Learn more about the Jewish Community Legacy Project at jclproject.org.
Dr. Cooper will speak at Kehilat Kesher in Englewood this Shabbat, with talks scheduled for July 21 and 22. Her topics include “Saying Goodbye to the Synagogues in America’s Hinterland: What About the Objects Left Behind?” “Sephardi, Mizrachi, Ashkenazi, and Others: A Cultural Anthropologist’s Perspective on Unity and Diversity,” and “Central Asia’s Bukharan Jews: A Long History at the Jewish World’s Geographical Edge.” Call Kesher’s office, at (201) 227-1117, for more information.