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A farewell to Quincy’s last synagogue

As demographics change, the last temple in Quincy is up for sale

Debee Tlumacki for the Boston Globe

President Steve Jacobs at Temple Beth El, the last remaining synagogue in Quincy, up for sale due to a shrinking congregation now numbering only 35.

QUINCY — George Goldstein gently placed his hand against a stained-glass window inside the sanctuary of Temple Beth El. His fingers rested on the shiny, jigsaw-puzzle pieces of glass that radiate bursts of color and light, casting a warm glow over on the empty pews of his synagogue.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” he said, with sadness in his voice.

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Temple Beth El has a special place in Goldstein’s heart. This is where he got married. For years, it has been his spiritual home. And now, it’s being put up for sale.

For more than half a century, Temple Beth El has stood at the corner of Hancock and Bridge streets as a religious landmark for the city’s once-burgeoning Jewish community. Today, it is the last synagogue in Quincy. Three other synagogues in the city have long been closed, and Temple Beth El will soon join them.

The heart-wrenching decision to put the building on the market was not an easy one.

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“This is a very difficult thing to go through,” said temple president Steve Jacobs, whose parents were founding members of the congregation, which comprised more than 400 families at its peak.

There are only 35 members today.

Starting about six or seven years ago, the congregation realized that its significant drop in membership meant difficult times were ahead, said Jacobs. “We had to make a decision to put the property on the market,” he said.

The temple’s seven-member board of directors now faces more tough decisions. The directors must choose a realtor to market the property. Then they need to figure out what to do with all of the sacred items and historical artifacts in the temple. And what about the stained-glass windows? How can they be preserved? Those are among the questions that must be answered in the months ahead as they proceed with selling or leasing their house of worship.

Temple Beth El is a Conservative egalitarian synagogue with a history that goes back to 1950. The congregation first met at the Jewish Community Center at 10 Merrymount Road, and then built the synagogue at 1001 Hancock St. to house its growing membership base. The synagogue was dedicated on Dec. 12, 1958.

Jacobs recalls that membership began to decline in the early 1970s. “The congregation was getting older,” he said. “People had moved out of town, and the demographics didn’t have a lot of younger Jewish folks moving in.

“The aging population passed on; some may have moved down south, or to assisted-living facilities. The children of many of those folks moved to the suburbs,” said Jacobs.

Jacobs, 60, grew up in Quincy, attended Hebrew school at Temple Beth El, and had his bar mitzvah at the synagogue in 1964. Like many other members, he eventually moved away from Quincy. He now lives in Marshfield.

“At one time, there was enough Jewish population to sustain four synagogues” in Quincy, he said. “At one point or another, they all closed.”

Despite the dwindling numbers at Temple Beth El, the congregation has taken great care of the property, according to the synagogue’s religious leader, Rabbi Navah Levine. The roof has been repaired, new carpets have been put in, and a new heating and air-conditioning system has been installed.

“The fact that they’ve managed to maintain this building with so few people is a testament to their dedication to the community,” said Levine.

The steep decline in membership at Temple Beth El is a sign of Quincy’s changing population.

“It’s totally an issue of demographics,” said Carol Clingan, a Dedham resident who serves as vice president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Greater Boston.

At various times over the last century, she said, Jews in many urban, working-class cities in Massachusetts gradually migrated outward to more affluent suburbs. This happened in Boston, when Jews moved away from the North, South, and West Ends and relocated to old streetcar suburbs like Mattapan, Roxbury, and Dorchester, and then to suburbs like Brookline and Newton.

While some synagogues have closed, others are thriving, said Clingan.

“It’s not like synagogue life is dying out,” she said. “There are hugely growing populations” in other suburban communities. She noted that Temple Beth Elohim, a Reform congregation in Wellesley, recently had to construct a new building because it has grown from 325 families in 1990 to more than 900 families today.

American religious congregations of all faith traditions are dealing with ever-tightening budgets, aging memberships, and fewer people attending weekend worship services, according to a recent survey by the Cooperative Congregations Studies Partnership, a multifaith group of religious researchers and faith leaders.

Jewish congregations face similar challenges. The nationwide survey found that young people between the ages of 18 and 34 represent 8 percent of Reform and Conservative congregations, while there are three times as many people ages 65 and older.

In smaller Jewish congregations with fewer than 250 families, elderly members represent more than 30 percent of synagogue membership.

David Schulze, president of Ahavath Torah Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Stoughton, said running a small congregation is “financially very overwhelming.”

“Virtually everyone is feeling the same kind of squeeze,” he said.

Schulze said people of all faiths are crunched for time these days, and the “lack of commitment to religion” appears to be growing more widespread.

“A piece of people’s lives is being lost,” he said.

Schulze estimates that approximately 500 people belong to his synagogue, but a decade ago it had twice as many members. Some families moved out of town, while others stayed but are no longer affiliated with the congregation.

Despite the decrease, Schulze said: “ATC is very solid. We’re doing quite well. We keep rolling through year after year.”

According to the 2011 population estimates from the North American Jewish Data Bank, there are approximately 210,500 Jews in Greater Boston, including about 21,000 who live in the towns of Canton, Sharon, and Stoughton.

Schulze just learned about the extent of Temple Beth El’s obstacles last month.

“They were a thriving synagogue 20 years ago, and now they’re closing the doors,” said Schulze. “That’s disheartening.”

Longtime members of Temple Beth El are now on a mission to preserve the history and legacy of their temple. The sanctuary at Temple Beth El features colorful glass windows that were designed by Lexington artist David Holleman. Each window depicts a Biblical scene. There are angels of God ascending and descending Jacob’s Ladder; the Biblical scene of creation, “Let there be light!”; the burning bush; and the Israelites’ crossing of the Sea of Reeds.

What will happen to the windows remains to be seen.

“We also have to consider the significant amount of artifacts,” said Jacobs. Members want to “preserve the memory of the folks who came before us.”

Temple Beth El houses a collection of mosaics and tapestries, as well as the 1899 incorporation certificate for Quincy’s first synagogue, Congregation Ahavath Achim.

Figuring what to do with everything will take some time, says Alan Teperow, executive director of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, a Newton-based organization that represents 120 congregations across the state.

Certain books and sacred objects used in rituals are required to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Donated items might be returned to their original owners. Other items might find a new home at another local congregation or Jewish organization, he said.

“They will have to do an inventory of all of their objects,” Teperow said. “For those that have sentimental value, it will have to be determined, item by item, what to do with each of those pieces.

“It’s a long process, and it’s a sensitive process.”

Jacobs remains optimistic that Temple Beth El’s congregation can move forward and “sustain the legacy of the temple and continue to do good works.”

The congregation is exploring possible partnerships with others in the area. For the past four years, Temple Beth El has teamed up with Temple B’Nai Shalom of Braintree to celebrate the High Holy Days, which typically draw more than 200 people to the sanctuary. They hope to do that again this year.

Jacobs said the proceeds from the sale of real estate may be donated toward an educational program or cause that supports and promotes Jewish life south of Boston. They are also looking at how they might donate Temple Beth El’s assets to various organizations.

“We try to look at it from a positive point of view. The assets will help create an ongoing legacy of Temple Beth El,” he said. “It’s a beautiful building.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
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