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An emotional shalom as synagogue ends -- and begins Temple Beth El holds final service as historic congregation merges

An emotional shalom as synagogue ends -- and begins Temple Beth El holds final service as historic congregation merges

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Western New York's oldest Jewish congregation celebrated its final evening service Monday before closing its doors and merging with another synagogue.

About 280 members of Temple Beth El, which dates from 1847, bid an emotional farewell to the elegant sanctuary on Eggert Road in the Town of Tonawanda.

The congregation is merging with Temple Shaarey Zedek in Amherst, and the two synagogues will worship as one at 621 Getzville Road, under the name Temple Beth Tzedek.

"It is so bittersweet," said Ellen Bernstein, a longtime member and a past president of Temple Beth El. "It's not merely the closing of the building, but it's the entity of Beth El not being in existence anymore. It's the whole heritage, the whole legacy of Beth El and the 161 years."

Bernstein was among several speakers to give remarks, including Holocaust survivor William Eisen, who has served as the temple's longtime Torah reader.

The congregation was encouraged to participate fully in the life of the merged congregation, as they had contributed to Temple Beth El.

Temple Beth El was the oldest synagogue practicing Conservative Judaism between New York City and Chicago, according to members, and evidence of its storied history abounds in the Eggert Road facility.

A group of a dozen men who had been meeting for worship inside the Western Hotel on Pearl Street in Buffalo established the congregation May 9, 1847. They initially rented space on Hoyt Street and then on Main and Eagle streets before building on a lot at Pearl and Eagle streets.

The congregation was located on Richmond Avenue from 1911 until the mid-1960s, when it moved to the Tonawanda site. Descendants of some of the earliest members of Temple Beth El continue to worship in the congregation.

The current sanctuary was built in the 1980s as an addition to the multipurpose building. It is decorated with artwork of copper and brass by David and Adir Ascalon.

"Everything in here is in honor or in memory of someone," said Bernstein, who helped organize the farewell service.

On one wall is a series of memorial plaques that light up on the anniversary of the honored person's passing. Another wall features a large Holocaust memorial sculpture.

Members said they're not sure how many of the items they'll be able to incorporate into the other synagogue.

"We hope to take as much as possible. Unfortunately, things like stained glass -- they're built to our specifications, so you can't simply put them in another window frame," said Ed Drozen, current Temple Beth El president.

Monday's service marked the start of Shavu'ot, a Jewish holiday tied to Passover and known as the "Festival of Weeks." Shavu'ot commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Seven young people also received Confirmation.

The Temple Beth El site, which includes a school and auditorium, is for sale. Pyramid Brokerage has the 37,000-square-foot facility listed for $1.2 million.

In separate votes in May, members of both congregations agreed to the merger as a way to maintain and strengthen Conservative Judaism in Western New York.

A merger had been talked about for years, but both congregations resisted more serious discussions until last year.

Like many congregations in the area, their memberships have become significantly smaller -- and older -- in recent years, because of population shifts and changes in levels of religious observance.

The merger, which recently was approved by State Supreme Court, will result in a new congregation of about 775 members.

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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