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As Rural Congregations Get Smaller, They Make Do Without Rabbis, Cantors

August 26, 2005
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There’s been a Jewish community in Muskogee, Okla. since 1867, when furrier Joseph Sonderheim opened his import-export business. In 1916 the first synagogue was dedicated, Congregation Beth Ahaba, a lay-led Reform congregation that served a tight-knit Jewish community of merchants and professionals.

“As Oklahoma grew and prospered through the 1920s, so did our congregation,” says Nancy Stolper, 77, who moved to Muskogee 50 years ago.

Beth Ahaba reached its height of 75 families in 1929 but dwindled to 40 families during the Depression, as stores shut down and people moved away to find work.

Since then, Beth Ahaba’s fortunes have declined steadily. Its young people, including the Stolpers’ four children, grew up and moved away.

Its last student rabbi left 15 years ago.

“We’re now just a group of frail senior citizens,” says Stolper, noting that only eight to 10 members are still able to get to synagogue.

Three months ago they gave up their monthly Friday night services, and this High Holiday season, she fears, will be their last.

“My children have invited us to spend the holidays with them, but I can’t do that, you understand?” Stolper says, crying quietly. “What will we do with our beautiful little building? And our Torah? We haven’t forced ourselves yet to make those decisions. But we know the inevitable is in sight.”

Beth Ahaba’s story is playing out across America, from the mining towns of upper New York state and Pennsylvania to rust-belt factory towns in Michigan and Illinois, sweeping across old Civil War communities like Vicksburg, Miss. and Jonesboro, Ala., and following the pioneer trail into Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.

As local fortunes headed downward in these towns, so did their Jewish communities.

“It’s very often a function of changing demographics,” explains Rabbi Victor Appell of the Union for Reform Judaism. “The vast majority of these places had congregations that have grown smaller over the years.”

Rabbi Lawrence Jackofsky, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Southwest region, relates the story of Ardmore, Okla., a once-booming oil town that now has just two or three Jews left.

“The guy who was running services at the end told me, ‘I looked out one day, saw two Jews and 10 Catholics in the room, and said, it’s time to move on.’ “

Some of these historic congregations were able to support rabbis and even cantors in their heyday.

Others like Beth Ahaba never could, but survived from the beginning on the strength of their lay leadership.

“A lot of dying congregations exist simply because they’ve always been there,” says Jay Weiner of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.

The Reform and Conservative movements, which represent most of the country’s lay-led congregations, try to provide support through a variety of means, including student rabbis, visiting rabbis and lay leadership training courses.

Yvonne Youngberg, a fifth-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, directs the school’s student-run rabbinical student placement service, which sends students to small Conservative congregations that ask for help. She says about half of the fourth- and fifth-year students have regular pulpits.

“Twice a month is the norm, but it’s increasingly common for students to split a pulpit,” she says.

Youngberg shares her gig in Watertown, N.Y., with a cantorial student, so each of them makes the six-hour drive just once a month.

“It’s better for our schedules, and the congregation gets to hear my services and her davening,” she says.

Many congregations are served by visiting rabbis from the movements’ regional offices.

In his 13 years with the United Synagogue, Rabbi David Blumenfeld visited more than 170 of the 200 smallest Conservative congregations. He’d show up on Friday, lead services, answer questions, advise them on fund-raising and youth work, even coach members suffering burnout.

“In these congregations, you have a core of people who are always doing everything,” he says.

Blumenfeld focused on congregations in the most geographically remote areas. He’s given impromptu sermons in Yiddish to a congregation of Russian-speakers, and he’s mushed through snowstorms outside Reno, Nev.

Everywhere he went, Blumenfeld says, he saw ingenuity and spirit.

He asked one Texas congregation how they got a minyan every week. A member pointed to a nearby street lamp and said when they need another Jew on Fridays, he makes the light blink during the evening rush hour.

At one North Carolina synagogue, the lay leader showing him around couldn’t find his keys to the building.

“He told me, ‘Don’t worry I can get a key from any congregant,’ ” Blumenfeld recalls. “I said, ‘What, all 40 of them have keys to the synagogue?’ And he said, ‘Why not, it belongs to them.’ “

The Conservative and Reform movements both run summer training programs to help lay leaders learn the basics of running a service, read Torah, teach Hebrew school, do baby-namings, even conduct funerals.

“Everything except officiating at weddings,” says Rabbi Sue Ann Wasserman, director of worship, music and religious living for the Union for Reform Judaism.

Wasserman says about half of this year’s participants in the Reform movement’s synagogue associate course come from lay-led congregations. The others want to learn skills to help support their clergy.

One Texas congregation sends people every year, she says.

“They have a rabbi but can’t afford a second clergy, so they are building up their lay leadership,” she notes.

But it’s the lay-led congregations who really benefit, she says.

“It’s amazing the difference it makes in their congregational life,” she says.

Last year, Temple Kol Shalom, a Reform congregation with 47 families in Placerville, Calif., decided to send Dale Wallerstein, a chiropractor who had been acting as a cantorial soloist for years.

The temple had been hiring visiting rabbis and student rabbis. Finally, Wallerstein says, “we looked at continuity and consistency issues and the cost, and decided it would be good if I learned how to give dvar Torahs,” or interpretations of the Torah, “do funerals and provide pastoral care.”

After completing the two-year course, which meets for two weeks each summer, and attending a winter session on Jewish education, Wallerstein says she is “thrilled” with what she’s learned.

Even more than actual skills, she says the course has “given me confidence, which adds to my credibility,” and showed her “how to access areas I hadn’t know about, so I can direct our adult education to a different place.”

Blumenfeld, now retired from his visiting rabbi days, says larger congregations and their rabbis have a lot to learn from small, lay-led groups.

“Every rabbinic student should spend time in one of these congregations,” he says. “They have such heart.”

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