Last synagogue in Revere prepares to close its doors
There will still be Jews in the city of Revere, but after Friday there will no longer be a synagogue for them to attend.
The city’s last temple, Temple B’nai Israel — established in 1906 — is closing, a victim of declining membership, not enough money, and too few congregants willing to take on the jobs that a mostly volunteer-run house of worship needs to keep going.
“It was not unexpected, but we all hoped it wouldn’t happen,” said Debby Cherry, president of the temple.
There once were three active synagogues in the city, which attracted Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe. Congregation Ahavas Achim Anshe Sefarad closed in 1998 after nearly 80 years, and Congregation Tifereth closed in 2015 after 103 years. The old-timers died, and their descendants largely moved elsewhere.
In earlier days, the synagogues were right in the neighborhoods where Jews lived, but now B’nai Israel is what is called a “destination synagogue,” because people drive there.
The brick building on Wave Avenue, which dates to 1925, is being purchased by a Muslim group that plans to use it as a social and religious center.
The cemetery is being turned over to another group to manage, Cherry said, and there is an effort to figure out what to do with the Torahs, prayer books, mantle, and ark.
“That’s another to-do list,” said Cherry, who received her first religious instruction at B’nai Israel.
By the time she took on her first stint as president, in 1998, the temple’s school had closed. That same year, the temple’s membership included more than 200 families. A decade later, the number had shrunk to 140 families. By the time Cherry agreed to become president a second time, in 2018, there were only 60.
“We need 150 families to break even,” Cherry said.
B’nai Israel probably could have hung on a bit longer, since its endowment was covering the portion of the expenses that membership could not. But the more immediate problem was that too few members were able to take on the tasks that keep the temple going.
“There may be just 15 to 20 people showing up on any given Friday night or Sunday morning,” Cherry said. “Everybody got too busy or too old.”
In 2013, a leadership group at B’nai Israel, assessing the long-term, realized the temple was not sustainable. Four years later, its leaders contacted the Jewish Community Legacy Project. It helps congregations that foresee declines in money and membership plan for contingencies, writing a congregational will or what its director, Noah Levine, refers to as “a legacy plan.”
“We get calls asking us, ‘If we were to close, what should we do with the cemeteries, the building, the money, the religious artifacts?’ ”
The Legacy Project has worked with more than 100 congregations in the past decade, Levine said, and 16 of them have closed. B’nai Israel is a bit atypical, he said, in that a current membership of 60 families still makes many synagogues viable. “Typically, the congregations we work with are under 30 families, but they mostly are in rural areas, where expenses are lower than in Boston,” he said.
Synagogues — and churches, too — don’t just close but downsize over time. B’nai Israel used to have a full-time rabbi but shifted to a part-time one in the 1980s; for the past two years, it has been led by a rabbinical student from Hebrew College in Newton.
“This is where people have gathered for so many years to worship and see their friends, and now it won’t be there anymore,” said B’nai’s interim leader, Misha Clebaner. “It is a bittersweet moment for the congregation.”
As people relocate — or, perhaps more accurately, as the children of longtime residents move to cities where their prospects are better — certain things, such as religious communities, may be left behind that can’t be sustained. What once was a house of worship serves another purpose.
“Jews don’t stay put,” said Dr. Ira M. Sheskin, a professor in the department of geography at the University of Miami and director of the university’s Jewish Demography Project. “This country is constantly moving around to where jobs and a better life are available.”
The number of Jews in the United States is not declining, Sheskin said, holding out the number of 6.9 million, which has remained steady. But the situation for synagogues is less positive. Most of the losses are in smaller towns and cities, and closing a synagogue in effect leaves the congregants homeless.
“If you, your father, your grandfather all attended the same synagogue,” Levine said, “it is very painful to have it close.”
In many instances, according to Alanna Cooper, director of Jewish Lifelong Learning at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, a synagogue simply disbands, and the congregants “don’t go elsewhere or join other synagogues.”
Cherry, who said Temple B’Nai’s final service is planned for Friday night, called the imminent closing of B’nai Israel “gut-wrenching.” Easing the pain is all that work on the to-do list of placing items in other synagogues.
After the temple is sold, the money will go to an endowment that provides funding for “Jewish organizations, women’s organizations, organizations that help children — we haven’t really decided yet what we will be doing with it — but that will be our legacy,” she said.
“Come September, I may be wondering, where am I going to go for high holidays? But, I can’t go there yet, I can’t have that thought. There is still too much to do right now.”
Synagogues in Chelsea and Winthrop have reached out to members of B’nai Israel, Cherry said, although there has not been a lot of conversation about what people will do next.
“We’re still trying to get through this process,” she said.