Torahs from the Suffolk Jewish Center in Deer Park were marched and driven five miles to the Dix Hills Jewish Center under bright sunny skies Sunday as the two Long Island congregations celebrated their merger with singing, dancing and food.
As police and fire trucks led the way and a klezmer band played, Dr. Martin Feller, a founder of the Dix Hills Jewish Center, recalled a similar march 30 years ago when he and fellow congregants carried Torahs from their rented house to their then-new home at Vanderbilt Parkway and DeForest Road.
“It was a beautiful Sunday in the fall and there was also dancing in the street,” he said. “But I don’t think we had a klezmer band.”
Along the way, some of the marchers stopped for water and orange slices set up by Dix Hills members Barbara and Ed Buro on a table in the driveway of their home. And they hung a sign, “Welcome Suffolk Jewish Center,” from a tree alongside the road.
The merger was one of two on Long Island this year, and all four congregations involved are Conservative. In the other, the 100-family New Hyde Park Jewish Community Center merged with the 500-family Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn.
Members of the Suffolk County Legislature and the Huntington Town Board joined in Sunday’s celebration. Allan Binder, a Republican member of the Legislature, recalled growing up in the Suffolk Jewish Center.
“There’s a bitter tear in one eye seeing the ending of where I grew up,” he said. “But there is a sweet tear in the other eye to see the merger and this celebration. The congregation could have ended, but it didn’t.”
In fact, 90 out of about 105 families in the Suffolk Jewish Center opted to join the merged congregations, according to Dix Hills Jewish Center Rabbi Howard Buechler. The new Dix Hills congregation now has about 660 member families.
“Virtually everyone who had paid dues joined,” said Jerry Buchferer, immediate past president of the Suffolk Jewish Center.
Like the New Hyde Park Jewish Center, declining membership due to changed demographic conditions led the Suffolk Jewish Center to seek a merger.
At its height in the 1960s, the 79-year-old New Hyde Park Jewish Center had so many members that its Hebrew school had to have a split shift.
“It was the shul in western Nassau,” said Rabbi David Greenstein, who was hired as the cantor in 1990 and became the rabbi three years later after Rabbi Leonard Aronson died in the days between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur.
Membership dropped in the 1970s when some members broke away to form the Lake Success Jewish Center. Rabbi Greenstein said that for several years there have been merger discussions but that they did not become a serious option until the last few years.
Susan Pavane, a New Hyde Park member since 1975 and director of its Project Elijah, a family outreach program, said the congregation simply “didn’t have the finances to continue.”
“We had a tenant, a religious school, and when they left that was the last straw,” she said. “It’s sad. We call it bittersweet because we’re merging and moving forward. But it’s also a little sad because when you have a small shul, every person counts so much. We were all involved and did so much.”
Rabbi Greenstein will stay on and head the newly created Shiluv Institute, which he said “will create programs and program materials to integrate Jewish life and contemporary issues in ways that are inviting and challenging to people.”
New Hyde Park closed July 31, and the two congregations had a kickoff celebration Sept. 12 with a daylong program held in conjunction with the Interfaith Nutrition Network in Hempstead.
“We had bread-baking workshops and people of all ages came and made challah rolls,” Rabbi Greenstein said, adding that each roll was placed in a bag and that 178 bags were donated to the network.
Rabbi Martin Cohen, spiritual leader of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center, said the New Hyde Park members “seem committed to finding a place for themselves [here].” He noted that all of their memorial plaques are being put up at Shelter Rock.
“They have suffered the loss of their community, but they have found a home here and it is satisfying that we have been able to step in and help,” he said.
Stephen Teitelbaum, president of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center, said 62 New Hyde Park families have joined since the merger. He said one reason more did not join is because “there are tons of shuls around here.”
“It’s been working out beyond our expectations,” he said. “We have melded beautifully, we had a well-attended inaugural picnic and the sanctuary was full [for the High Holy Days.] We had a main service [for 1,600 people] and everyone who wanted to be there was able to be accommodated.”
He added that four New Hyde Park members were added to the synagogue’s board of trustees and that the pending sale of New Hyde Park’s synagogue building and rabbi’s residence are awaiting court approval.
The Suffolk Jewish Center building will be used as a nursery school for as long as it is economically feasible, according to Cara Kagan, immediate past president of the Dix Hills Jewish Center.
“The school is a benefit to the community,” she said. “It has a fine program and we do not want to disrupt it if it is in our power to keep it.”
Jerry Buchferer said that the Suffolk Jewish Center, which was started in 1961, once had 400 members. But over the years, he said, membership declined because no new Jewish families moved into the area and members died or moved to Florida.
Despite a declining membership, about $60,000 in proceeds from bingo held twice a week kept the congregation functioning. But in the summer of 2003, Suffolk County banned smoking in public places and bingo attendance plummeted. The game was ended in December and with it went plans to mortgage the synagogue and the cantor’s house for the purpose of hiring a young rabbi to attract young Jewish families to the community. The congregation’s founding rabbi, Gabriel Maza, had retired the year before.
Kagan said the leaders at Suffolk were aware their congregation was in decline “and they didn’t want to reach the point where bankruptcy was their only alternative. They wanted to come to another congregation with their heads held high and present a merger possibility, which they did.”
Buchferer said he investigated all of the area synagogues and believed that Dix Hills was the best match.
Robin Nachman, whose father had been president of the Suffolk Jewish Center, headed the consolidation talks for Dix Hills.
“We did our best to reach out to them with compassion and understanding and sensitivity,” she said. “Their people have felt welcome and we are making a concerted effort to make them feel that this is their home as well.”
Rabbi Buechler said the leadership of both congregations “worked cooperatively with the goal of a smooth transition. In a few months, all of the terms were agreed to so that we would safeguard the precious heirlooms of their community. Their yahrtzeit plaques are being placed in our synagogue and the dedicatory artwork and Judaica is being prominently displayed.
“Their Torah scrolls represent the history and the future of their community, and the observances we practice and cherish are now part of our synagogue community.”