Small-City Congregations Try to Preserve Rituals of Jewish Life


December  01, 2010, The New York Times

Jane L. Levere

Although Irving Greenblum, an 81-year-old investor and retired furniture store owner, has four grown sons, he says he is "the last Greenblum who lives in Laredo," a city on Texas' border with Mexico.

That is because his sons - three trained as lawyers, one as an architect - have moved away and built their careers in larger Texas cities, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.

Born in Mexico to immigrant Russian Jews, Mr. Greenblum said that with a dwindling population, the rituals of Jewish life are fading in Laredo, including the pastime of schmoozing by border merchants. His father, who started the family's furniture business in 1937, "used to spend a whole afternoon going from store to store" having coffee with local Jewish merchants. "Nowadays, when I go downtown there are few to visit," he said.

Faced with an economic and social decline, shrinking synagogue membership and the eventual end of cemetery oversight, struggling Jewish communities like Laredo, Sumter, S.C., and Marion, Ind., are turning to a philanthropic matchmaker for help: David Sarnat, the developer of the Jewish Community Legacy Project, helps them find organizations in places with thriving Jewish populations that can take over cemetery maintenance and transfer or sell synagogues, religious scrolls and other assets when their members have moved away or died.

The Legacy Project adapts a familiar concept - the living will - with a novel twist. First introduced in California in 1976, this legal document has evolved beyond its original goal of letting people specify the medical treatment they would like at the end of their lives.

After the 2008 banking crisis, the Dodd-Frank Act instructed the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation to have the largest financial institutions in the country write a living will to plan for their orderly demise, if necessary.

Last summer, Mr. Sarnat, former head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, obtained a $600,000 two-year grant for the project from the Marcus Foundation, established by Bernard Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot. (Mr. Marcus and his wife, Billi, were among the first 40 signers of the Giving Pledge, a commitment by wealthy Americans to donate the majority of their fortunes to charity.)

According to Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, most Jews in the United States have migrated from small communities to large cities: he estimates that 85 percent of the country's 5.2 million Jews live in 20 metropolitan areas, primarily on the East and West Coasts and in Sun Belt states.

Mr. Sarnat estimates there are 150 to 200 communities across the country that could benefit from the project's help.

The process of dismantling a community, experts say, is fraught with potential tensions involving both purse and heartstrings. Mark A. Raider, a professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Cincinnati, cited disagreements over disposition of material assets.

"Where there's money, real estate and other significant resources, there tends to be differing and often opposing views about who should control it," Dr. Raider said.

Rabbi Mychal Springer, director of the Center for Pastoral Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary, says the project will have to deal with "extraordinary sensitivity on the part of all people involved."

"When a community is shutting its doors and making decisions about what should be," Rabbi Springer said, "some people let go sooner and others hold on longer. There can be a lot of angst, disagreement and regret."

Such emotions embroiled members of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in Sumter with 36 mostly elderly members. When Roger Ackerman, the 78-year-old retired owner of a metal recycling business, proposed the concept of a "temple will" to congregation members in 2005, not everyone supported him.

"People hope the problem will go away," Mr. Ackerman said.

Raymond Reich, a Sumter city official and president of Temple Sinai, said Mr. Ackerman's opponents "felt that saying the congregation was going to die, that it was no longer viable, was taking a negative approach."

"In my opinion," Mr. Reich added, they were "putting their heads in the sand."

The congregation eventually came around: They created a committee to plan the synagogue's future, which Mr. Ackerman leads, and, with Mr. Sarnat's help, signed an agreement for cemetery maintenance with the Charleston Jewish Federation.

Members of Laredo's Jewish community, whom Mr. Sarnat has introduced to officials of the Federation of Greater Austin for cemetery care, are facing the community's decline with both sadness and resignation.

"It doesn't make me feel too good," Mr. Greenblum said. "This is the place where I grew up, my home, my background. It's dying. But you have to face reality."

His sister and parents are buried in Laredo's Jewish cemetery, and he has set aside plots there for himself and his wife, Shirley.

Evelyn Selig, 64, a Laredo retailer and widow whose three children have moved away, said the membership of her Conservative synagogue had dwindled to 40 families, from a peak 30 years ago of more than 100.

"My synagogue is my home," Ms. Selig said. "But I'm a realist."

The handover of the cemetery's maintenance, she explained, will not occur "for over 20 years." "But," she said, "we want to get it established and know there is some succession and continuity in oversight."

Mr. Marcus said the project made people "think about the inevitable, compels them to focus in on areas where they'd like to have a legacy established."

And that might well have a positive ripple effect, predicted Eli N. Evans, a writer on Southern Jewish life and former president of the Charles H. Revson Foundation.

Mr. Marcus' support of a national initiative "should be a signal to other philanthropists with smaller family foundations to help locally in the states and communities they live in," he said.

In the meanwhile, Jewish life, however diminished, continues in Laredo. Ms. Selig's synagogue will celebrate Hanukkah at a party on Sunday, with close to 50 people expected. Four or five will be children; years ago there would have been 40.

"I'm sorry there won't be more children," she said. "But I am happy we are celebrating, doing a party and making an effort to have an active community."


The New York Times, 2010