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Time of change for Jewish community Shrinking numbers mean combining resources

The Jewish Community Center of Greater Buffalo plans to build a smaller facility in the Northtowns more in line with the needs of today's aging, shrinking Jewish community.

Competing synagogues that once recruited members from one another are talking about ways to combine programs and operations and collectively reach out to unaffiliated Jews.

At the end of June, the American Jewish Committee stopped providing professional staff for its Western New York chapter, citing the need to redeploy those resources to cities with much larger Jewish populations.

The local Jewish community is adjusting to dramatically reduced numbers.

Although no one has conducted a census recently, estimates of the region's Jewish population are now at 13,500 -- half of what a demographic study found 11 years ago.

Meanwhile, the current infrastructure within the Jewish community -- its network of institutions, buildings, programs and services -- has remained essentially unchanged since the 1970s, when the population was about 30,000.

The Jewish Community Center responded to the new realities with a dramatic strategic plan that calls for the closure of the popular Benderson Family Building in Getzville. Similarly, many of the area's Jewish congregations are engaged in conversations about how to confront the demographic challenges.

>Comparison to diocese

Some Jewish leaders equate their community's situation to that of the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo -- as well as government and other institutions in Western New York, including several mainline Protestant denominations. The diocese has lost an estimated 100,000 Catholics since 1985 and is in the midst of merging and closing churches and schools and generally streamlining its operations.

"We're not exempt from the difficulty," said Peter Fleischmann, executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies, which raises funds for many area Jewish organizations. "It's a period of transition we have to go through."

Three years ago, the Jewish Federation of Niagara Falls was dissolved because the community had dwindled to fewer than 100 people. The assets of the agency were transferred to the Foundation for Jewish Philanthropies.

The latest transition involves the retrenchment of the American Jewish Committee, an international think tank and advocacy organization with a Buffalo Niagara chapter for more 60 years.

"We asked ourselves the question: Where do we need to be five years, 10 years, 15 years from now?" said Jonathan Levine, the committee's national director of community services. "There are some communities showing dramatic growth in Jewish population."

Religious entities also are re-evaluating how they operate.

Some synagogues are looking for ways to combine bookkeeping and office management aspects of their organizations or share programs and services.

This fall, with just 22 children in its religious school, Temple Shaarey Zedek plans to link up with the Gesher School -- itself a product of a recent merger of the schools of Temple Beth El in the Town of Tonawanda and Temple Sinai in Amherst.

Temple Beth Am in Amherst also has joined the discussion about a Jewish community school that would serve all four congregations, possibly as early as the fall of 2008.

"All of our schools are going to shrink in size. Eventually, there's going to have to be a community religious school or a merger of religious schools," said Blaine Schwartz, Temple Beth Am president. "The biggest issue is logistical. Each temple wants to preserve its own identity."

The area's largest Jewish congregation, Temple Beth Zion, a Reform temple with facilities in Buffalo and Amherst and about 1,050 members, is not part of the current school discussions but could be in the future, said Wendee Lorbeer, president.

Western New York is not alone in losing Jewish population -- a trend that has hit cities such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Milwaukee and St. Louis just as hard. Meanwhile, growth states such as Arizona, California, Florida and Nevada are experiencing a corresponding boom in Jewish population.

Like many ethnic groups in Western New York, as their numbers grew, Jewish residents built a network of institutions that filled critical needs. The Jewish Community Center, for example, came to fruition during a more segregated time, as a place where Jews could go to exercise, socialize and build a cultural identity -- opportunities that were not available elsewhere.

These days, Jewish people are less than 40 percent of the total membership of the center. Many Jews are just as likely to join the Buffalo Athletic Club or Gold's Gym.

"People like the idea that they're involved secularly, as well as in Jewish groups," said Andrew Shaevel, a Jewish Community Center board member.

>A change of course

The center's Benderson Family Building was set to close this summer, but after a community outcry, the center's board of trustees changed course. Benefactors stepped forward to keep the building open for three more years, until a smaller, more efficient facility can be built in the Northtowns.

But as the population continues to decline, the financial burden to sustain what is left falls on fewer and fewer people.

Many Jewish congregations already struggle annually with deficit budgets and growing utility costs.

"There are too many Jewish organizations looking for the same few dollars," said Rusty Zackheim, president of Temple Shaarey Zedek in Amherst. "That is a major, major problem."

Jewish congregations have the added financial challenge of paying top dollar for their rabbis, who tend to receive the highest salaries among clergy.

Along with the flight of young people, intermarriage has cut into temple membership, especially in Conservative synagogues, where non-Jewish spouses cannot participate in many religious rituals.

The delicate subject of merging congregations has come up, too.

Temple Beth El and Temple Shaarey Zedek, the area's two Conservative synagogues, have had some preliminary discussions on the topic, thus far to no avail.

Temple Beth El, with 300 families, is the oldest Jewish congregation in Buffalo, dating from 1847. Temple Shaarey Zedek has 530 families -- about half its size from 20 years ago, said Zackheim.

Many of Temple Shaarey Zedek's most active members are now retired and make their way South for up to half the year, leading to "too few volunteers doing too many things," she said.

Other synagogues report similar trends, but some temple leaders see a silver lining in the latest school discussions.

The merger three years ago of religious schools at Temple Beth El, a Conservative synagogue, and Temple Sinai, a Reconstructionist congregation, into the Gesher School could point the way. "Is it difficult? Yeah. But it's been doable, and it's worked because both congregations realized it had to work," said Ed Drozen, president of Temple Beth El.

An even larger combined school will be able to offer better programming and involve children from a variety of backgrounds.

It's a chance to create "something unique and very special," Schwartz said. "We think the future is to get these kids together."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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