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It once was the social and civic hub for much of Niagara Falls' Jewish community, the place where families did their celebrating, their mourning, held their life's events.

One hundred years after its inception, Temple Beth Israel's role -- and its membership -- has changed dramatically.

As economic fortunes declined, many families left the area, their youngsters moving on to greener pastures. A once-proud community of about 180 has shrunk to one-third that size, and the remaining members of the temple -- a largely older population -- see it primarily as their spiritual home now.

But that's not stopping them from throwing a bash to celebrate the temple's 100th birthday, a party that promises to reach into the past and, hopefully, carry the temple into the future.

"We want to reach back and get together for what might be a final time," said Alan Kranitz, a temple member who will serve as co-chair and master of ceremonies for the Sept. 13 gala.

"We want to celebrate what we had, and what we will have, hopefully," Kranitz said. "We want to take a break at this historical signpost, before we all disappear, and bring everyone back who still has a memory."

Jack Gellman, general chairman for the event, said he expects a packed house for the party, including several local dignitaries.

Past presidents of the temple, as well as the late Franklin C. Wisbaum, who served as its secretary for 44 years, will be honored. The featured speaker will be retired Rabbi Melvin Kieffer, the temple's longest consecutive-serving rabbi with a 12-year tenure.

Other speakers will include Rabbi Martin Goldberg, the rabbi at Temple Beth El in Niagara Falls, and the Rev. Paul Golden, C.M., president of Niagara University.

Gellman, who first compiled a history of the temple for its golden anniversary in 1955 (the 50th anniversary of its incorporation), has history.

It was a century that saw the temple move from its original home to a spot on Cedar Avenue, and in 1967 to its current location at College and Madison avenues.

It was a century that saw prosperous times -- construction of the $420,000 new building, accomplished on "sacrifice and faith," Gellman said -- and later austere times: declining membership and dues have made it impossible to have a paid rabbi since 1995.

"We went the same way as Niagara Falls," Gellman said. "When the city started to go bad in the late '60s and early '70s, a lot of merchants and families left the city.

"When Rabbi (Haim) Cassorla left in 1995, we couldn't afford a new rabbi. That was the first time since 1916."

Temple member Dr. Laurence Boxer currently serves as the temple's spiritual leader, accepting no remuneration.

"We would have had to shut down if he hadn't been there" to step in, Gellman said.

A recent merger attempt with Temple Beth El failed "for various reasons," Gellman said, but Temple Beth Israel members continue to push on.

"All this (has) reminded me of the beautiful saying in Ecclesiastes," Gellman writes in the history: "A time to break down, a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh."

"Most of us feel it is not a time to break down, but a time to build up; not a time to weep but a time to laugh," Gellman wrote.

From a beginning of largely "not very affluent immigrant people," Temple Beth Israel thrived "until the city fell on tough times," Gellman said. "Now it is our turn to keep it going.

"We have had nay-sayers before, but somehow managed to find the strength to survive. Is it our time to break down or build up?"

Gellman's father, Alex, was one of the temple's early presidents, and helped his son record the building's first history.

"There were almost no (written) records," Gellman recalls. "It was kind of an oral history, but that's how the Bible was written -- over a couple thousand years."

Alex Gellman told his son that collecting the annual dues of $17 was one of his biggest headaches back in the 1920s. "He had to go house-to-house to collect it," Gellman said.

"And nobody could believe we could build a ($420,000) temple with 180 people" back in the mid-1960s. "When we did it, St. Teresa's invited me over to help raise money" for its College Avenue parish, which was erected a short time later.

"When we were having trouble (raising money for the new temple), we got help from Rev. Ray Hallin of Bacon Memorial Presbyterian Church," Gellman said. "He came to speak to us and said you have to go on faith. And that's how we did it."

Now, members try to keep the faith that the temple can continue on -- perhaps even prosper again -- into the next millenium.

The 100th anniversary celebration begins at 6 p.m. and is open to the public. Tickets at $25 are available by calling the temple at 285-9894 weekdays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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