At a time when so many congregations in the Rust Belt are closing, Congregation B’nai Abraham in Butler is investing in its future by downsizing.
The 114-year-old congregation, led by Cantor Michal Gray-Schaffer, is down to about 60 families, but leadership is optimistic that renovations to the space will fill the synagogue with new energy.
“We have downsized our sanctuary so that it fits our current needs, not those of the 1950s,” said Gray-Schaffer. “And with the downsizing, we were able to put in two offices, for me and my assistant, a library and two wheelchair accessible bathrooms.”
That is phase one of the project. Phase two, which has not yet begun, will be to downsize from the congregation’s two buildings to just one. Currently, offices, classrooms and a paneled library are contained in a Victorian house owned by the congregation, while the sanctuary, social hall, stage and kitchen are in another building that was built in the late 1950s.
The idea for the renovation came out of a PowerPoint presentation that Gray-Schaffer and her assistant did for the congregation’s board of directors two years ago, which she called “Courageous Conversations,” a phrase coined by Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom to encourage local institutions to take a hard look at their needs and honestly assess how they could best serve their communities.
“The PowerPoint was about the state of the synagogue and what our choices would be,” said Gray-Schaffer. “It included a slide show of different corners of the synagogue that were in terrible disrepair. The board realized it was a wake-up call. They stepped up and appointed a committee to see what to do with the building, or whether we should sell it — what our options were.”
When the board discovered that the Butler real estate market did not look promising for the sale of buildings such as B’nai Abraham’s, its members decided to renovate.
While initial bids for the work were beyond the congregation’s budget, The Community Builders Group, a division of Nonprofit Development Corporation, came in with a much lower bid, making the project possible. The Community Builders Group specializes in affordable construction for nonprofit organizations.
The work at B’nai Abraham was completed in June, just in time for a bar mitzvah and included the addition of air conditioning, a new roof and new carpeting and paint.
The sanctuary is now a more intimate space, with seating for 120 rather than 220, according to Eric Levin, president of the congregation. About 60 to 70 people typically come to the shul for High Holiday services, with b’nai mitzvahs drawing larger crowds.
“The interesting thing is, now when we get 15 to 20 people for a Friday night service, it feels like there are more people because the sanctuary is smaller,” Levin said.
“The sanctuary is sized for us now,” she said. “We were dwarfed by its size, but now even 10 people feel like a community.”
Other local rabbis, she said, have remarked upon seeing the new, smaller space that they also would like to have sanctuaries sized to reflect their current needs.
The construction was paid for through B’nai Abraham’s endowment fund, according to Gray-Schaffer.
“We made the decision that we could not attract new members with plaster falling off the ceiling,” she said. “And even if it doesn’t attract new members, we will have a nice space for the time we have left.”
Gray-Schaffer estimates that the congregation will remain open for “at least 10 years. It’s been my goal to keep this congregation viable.”
The congregation still has a religious school, with three of its students celebrating becoming b’nai mitzvah this summer.
“We may be small, but we’re strong,” said Levin.
“I’m really proud of the board for moving on this,” Gray-Schaffer said. “It’s a joy to be in the new space, and for me as a leader, it’s a joy to conduct services there. And it’s energized everyone. The people that are here are now planting flowers outside. It’s energized people to take good care of the property and to make it beautiful.”
Levin hopes that synagogue attendance will increase as a result of the renovation.
“Now we will see if the fruits of our labor start bringing our members back to services,” he said. “I’m hoping the air conditioning brings people back.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.