It was only a matter of time.
Like a species that has seen its habitat slowly shrink, the Reform Jews of the Five Towns have long been on the endangered list. Orthodox Jews have in the last generation transformed the area that was once filled with Reform and Conservative Jews and known for its classy shopping strip along Central Avenue.
Now, Temple Sinai of Long Island in Lawrence, which has seen its membership plummet over the years, is preparing to merge with Temple Emanu-El of Lynbrook, leaving only one Reform synagogue in the Five Towns.
For those left at Temple Israel of Lawrence, there is a feeling of bitterness, as if their fellow shipmates are deserting.
“They have basically decided to abandon the Five Towns,” lamented Garrett Gray, Temple Israel’s president. “People at Temple Sinai told us they believed Reform Judaism is dead in the Five Towns and that they don’t see it coming back, so they are leaving.
“We beg to differ,” Gray continued. “Reform Judaism in the area is declining based on demographics, and to keep it strong and vibrant, congregations should merge” and not flee.
But flee the congregants of Temple Sinai are poised to do, despite merger talks over the past two years with Temple Israel, which is only a mile away. Emanu-El is four miles away and not in the Five Towns.
“Location had a lot to do with the way people voted,” said Evelyn Maltman, Temple Sinai’s co-president. “Lawrence, being so overwhelmingly Orthodox, could not provide growth for a Reform congregation.”
The vote by Temple Sinai congregants Oct. 30 to pursue a merger with Temple Emanu-El did not sit well with the leadership of Temple Israel.
Gray confided that his congregation was “blindsided” by Temple Sinai’s decision, because his congregation merger talks “had been moving seriously in the last six months.”
But it was no surprise that Temple Sinai, which has seen its membership plummet from 430 families in the 1980s to about 130 families today, had to do something to stay alive amid a community of predominantly Orthodox Jews.
“Most of the Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated Jews are leaving or have already left,” said William Helmreich, a professor and deputy chairman of the sociology department at the CUNY Graduate Center of the City College of New York. “There is no longer a community there of like-minded [non-Orthodox] people.”
Maltman said she believes that it is only a matter of time before all Reform congregations on the South Shore “come together,” a conclusion with which Helmreich agrees.
“We’ll see more and more mergers because synagogues have large catering halls and huge infrastructures that were built for many more people,” he explained.
Helmreich, who is writing a book about the ethnic changes in the New York area in the last 40 years, said the rash of synagogue mergers in recent years — particularly along the South Shore — is evidence of a declining Jewish population on Long Island. He estimated that the Jewish population there has dropped by about 20 percent since a Jewish population survey in 2000 estimated there were 300,000 Jews in Nassau and 90,000 in Suffolk.
“The decline is larger than anyone wants to admit,” Helmreich said. “It’s like a crushing pressure.”
Among the reasons, he said, are an aging Jewish population, young people who are not moving to Long Island or are leaving Long Island, and the high rate of intermarriage and assimilation.
“Hitler tried to kill us with cruelty, and America is killing us with kindness,” Helmreich said, adding that he believes Long Island’s intermarriage rate today is between 55 and 60 percent.
But as Reform, Conservative and unaffiliated Jews leave the Five Towns, the Orthodox community there thrives and grows. And it is becoming increasing black hat, Helmreich said.
Orthodox Jews began moving into the Five Towns, which at one time was predominantly gentile, in significant numbers in the late 1980s. By 2000, it was said they made up about 30 percent of the total population. But in three of the Five Towns — Woodmere, Lawrence and Cedarhurst — Orthodox Jews today form by far the largest bloc of residents. The fancy dress shops and boutiques that were once the trademark of the Cedarhurst shopping district have been replaced with numerous kosher eateries, kosher supermarkets and Judaica shops.
The Orthodox domination of much of the community is evident throughout the area, not only in the large number of kosher establishments but also the growing number of synagogues, shtiebels and yeshivas.
And the Orthodox, upset with paying public school taxes that averaged $6,000 per home for a system they did not use, have taken control of the Lawrence school board in a series of elections.
But Gray said his congregants at Temple Israel would continue to remain in Lawrence, because they have contractual obligations with their caterer and the Five Towns JCC, which rents space there, that make the synagogue’s operations self-sustaining.
“The JCC has been here for a while and is renting out a section of our building for an early childhood program and a summer camp and other programs,” Gray said. “And we recently signed a letter of intent with them for them to erect a full-service JCC on the front lawn of our building.”
Merging with Temple Sinai, Gray said, would have increased the membership of his 101-year-old congregation — which now stands at 250 families — and “ensured that Reform Judaism remains a strong presence in the Five Towns.”
But he has not given up trying to entice Temple Sinai’s members to join his congregation, even as the temple itself moves. Gray said his congregation took out an ad in a local newspaper inviting Temple Sinai members to Shabbat services at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 5, followed by a gala oneg.
“They can see what Temple Israel has to offer and meet our officers, trustees and members,” Gray said. “We’re offering a free first-year membership.”
He pointed out that just days before Temple Sinai’s vote, his congregation made a counteroffer to persuade Temple Sinai members not to agree to the Temple Emanu-El merger offer.
“We beat, if not matched, the Emanu-El offer,” he insisted. “Emanu-El offered three to five years of free membership and religious school for Temple Israel members; we offered six. … We were denied the right to come to the congregational meeting. It was all done very quickly.”
Temple Sinai’s members voted 62-46 in favor of the Temple Emanu-El offer, and Maltman said those opposed “were not voting against it but wanted more time to consider the offer from Temple Israel.”
Gregg Weinstock, president of Temple Emanu-El, said his own 390-member families took a vote that was “virtually unanimous” in favor of the merger with Temple Sinai. He said that under the agreement, Temple Sinai members would leave their building, which Weinstock said is a “well-kept and maintained building — a valuable property.”
“It’s a good, two-story building on Washington Avenue that is suitable for a house of worship or a school,” he said. “It’s at the southern end of the shopping district of Cedarhurst, about one block west of Central Avenue, the main shopping street.”
Should the merger be completed — both congregations must take a second vote formally agreeing to the consolidation — the two congregations would form a new entity and adopt a new name to reflect the change.
“One congregation is not being absorbed by the other,” Weinstock said. “As a result, we will have a stronger, new temple.”
The combined entity would also have to hire new clergy because the spiritual leaders of both congregations will be leaving in June. Proceeds from the sale of Temple Sinai would be used in part to add to an existing endowment fund and for renovations to Temple Emanu-El. Portions of Temple Emanu-El were built in the 1940s and the 1960s.
“It is the intent to renovate and make the space as accommodating as possible,” Weinstock said.
But Gray said that had Temple Sinai merged with his congregation, none of the proceeds would have been needed to renovate Temple Israel, because it recently underwent renovation.
“It’s a shame, because the money could have been used for a lot of other things, including programming and a long-term dues freeze,” he said, adding that he heard that Sinai’s building was valued at between $3 million and $5 million.