The 35 member families of Temple Beth Israel in Steubenville, Ohio, will gather together at the synagogue that has been their spiritual home since 1966 for one last time in early September to celebrate the High Holy Days.
After that, those who wish to worship in a synagogue will have to drive 35 minutes to congregations in Pittsburgh, or 30 minutes to Wheeling, W.Va.
After 47 years, the congregation on Lovers Lane is closing, having sold its building to Tri-State Health Services, which is leasing the property to its Prime Time program for a full service senior citizen center.
“We really didn’t have any choice,” said Sandy Berman, who serves as the congregation’s co-president with Arthur Recht. “We are down to 35 families. Our expenses are tremendous, and our income is not.”
Back in the 1950s, Steubenville was home to about 300 Jewish families, and supported two congregations: the Reform Temple Beth El, and the Conservative B’nai Israel, both located downtown, according to Berman. The new synagogue was built in 1966 by Beth El, and the two congregations merged in 1980.
“We’re ‘conformed,’ ” Berman said. “We’re half Conservative and half Reform.”
The congregation had its final Shabbat service at its temple in May, but it has already closed on the sale to Tri-State, reserving space in the newly renovated senior center to hold High Holy Day services this year.
The new senior center is something that Steubenville’s aging population has needed for a long time, Berman said.
“The community — both Jewish and non-Jewish — is thrilled with our buyer,” he said. “So, our Jewish legacy is selling it for a community center. That pleases us.”
Many of the congregation’s artifacts will be housed at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills. Beth Israel is compensating Beth El for the designation of a room, which will hold its seven large memorial plaques, and other memorabilia, including some needlepoint pieces, and some paintings, according to Berman.
“It was a tremendous offer from Beth El,” he said. “And it was basically the only offer we got.”
Beth El also has offered free membership for the first year to members of Beth Israel, Berman said.
Beth Israel will be giving its large, bronze Biblical sculptures to Rodef Shalom, which will display them on its grounds outside, Berman said.
Several congregations from throughout the country have expressed interest in Beth Israel’s Torahs, but the congregation has not yet made any final decisions on where they will go.
“This was a situation not where we ran out of money, but where we ran out of people,” said Myron Chijner, a board member who assisted with the sale of the synagogue. “The building was built for a time when there were 200 families in the area. There haven’t been 200 families in a long time.”
Synagogues in smaller communities are closing all over he country, said David Sarnat of the Jewish Community Legacy Project, which operates out of Atlanta. The JCLP helps small Jewish communities plan for the future when those communities shrink as a result of aging and changing demographics.
“Children go on to become doctors and lawyers and Indian chiefs and never return,” he said. “We are working with over 30 communities. We work with the Reform movement, the Conservative movement, and the federations. We project that in the next 10 to 20 years, there could be 100 of these communities that are no longer able to function.”
Beth Israel is working with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh in establishing scholarship funds with the proceeds from the sale of the building, according to Berman.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)