Hard Times In Smithtown


Temple Beth Sholom in Smithtown, L.I., which has been struggling financially for years, had to close its Hebrew school earlier this month because it could not pay its teachers.

But the president of the 152-member congregation, Shafer Zeisman, said the leadership is determined to keep the rest of the synagogue functioning with money from the sale of its 32,000-square-foot building, parts of which were built 50 years ago.

Two weeks ago the congregation voted 94 to 24 to sell the building, which Zeisman valued at more than $2.5 million. And last week, he said he began talks with a church that has been renting space elsewhere and is seriously considering buying the building.

“At the end of the day this could be a wonderful shidduch [match],” he said, referring to a proposal for both his congregation and the church to share the building after it is sold.

“They say they want us to stay there to show that two faiths can live together,” Zeisman said. “They are very welcoming of us and say they will let us maintain all of our plaques — everything will stay as is. … They will do their things and we will do ours. We would still use the sanctuary.”

The decision to cancel Hebrew school for the congregation’s 32 students was made, he said, after an urgent plea to the congregation for money to pay salaries fell short of what was needed.

Zeisman said leaders of the nearby Commack Jewish Center heard of the financial crisis and offered to accept Temple Beth Sholom’s students without charge into their Hebrew school for the rest of the semester. He said a similar offer was made by the North Shore Jewish Center in Port Jefferson.

“They both made it clear that they were not looking to steal our people,” he emphasized.

All three are Conservative congregations.

Rabbi Jonathan Waxman, Temple Beth Sholom’s spiritual leader, called the offer from the neighboring congregations “most welcome.”

“I hope it is only an interim solution,” he said. “There is a possible sale of our building and then a reinvention of the congregation as things move forward on a more solid financial footing.”

Zeisman said he hopes the sale of the building will give the congregation the cash it needs to reduce dues and launch a major membership drive. He pointed out that dues are now $2,300 a year, plus $900 for Hebrew school.

“The unaffiliated population in Suffolk is on the rise, and it’s harder and harder to capture Jewish families and to sustain their involvement beyond the bar mitzvah years,” he said.

The median age of his congregation is now in its late 50s and early 60s, Zeisman noted.

“We have a very large facility, congregants who are struggling [financially] and who are aging and on limited incomes,” he said. “With the sale of the building we could pay off our mortgage and have an endowment fund with which to reorganize the congregation, possibly to smaller quarters one day.”

The congregation uses only about 2,000 or 3,000 square feet of the 32,000-square-foot building. The caterer, which had occupied a large area of the building, left last year. Attempts to find a new caterer failed because they all wanted to pay a portion of the money they earned from parties and nothing up front, Zeisman said.

“Kosher catering is not really in vogue now,” he said. “People go to the Watermill and other [non-kosher] places, and as a Conservative temple, we can’t encourage treif [non-kosher].”

Asked the reaction of congregants to the prospect of selling the building, Zeisman said, “There were a few who were upset, particularly those who gave a lot of money to the temple over the years. But the major donors said sell. These are the people who put the cement in the ground.”

In addition, he said the congregation is aware that about $700,000 is due on the mortgage at the end of the year.

“To sit there and run a mansion when we’re only using the living room is absurd.”