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Salem synagogue to close and merge its congregation

Salem’s Temple Shalom will sell its Lafayette Street building.Handout

Next Monday, Salem’s only Jewish synagogue — one of the oldest on the North Shore — will be shutting its doors.

Temple Shalom, which began in Salem 116 years ago, will sell its property for $1.06 million to a Salem developer who plans to lease the property to Salem State University.

The temple will merge with Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly next month.

“I think Salem is losing a lot. It’s losing a Jewish presence that’s been a good neighbor for many years, and it’s sad for the city and sad for us,” said Thomas Cheatham, chairman of a group planning Temple Shalom’s future, and a past temple president.


“It’s sad any time you see a longstanding entity like that go away,” said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll.

In 1898, the synagogue was founded by Eastern European Jewish merchants including the Filene family, which went on to start Filene’s department stores. Known as the Orthodox Congregation Sons of Jacob, it met at several rented locations, including halls at Derby Square and on Washington Street.

When it moved to Lafayette Street in 1952 and built Temple Shalom, the synagogue became a conservative congregation. It reached its highest membership in the 1960s, with around 300 households attending the brick shul.

In recent years, membership dipped to a low of 80 families, and in 2012, synagogue leaders decided to merge with a nearby temple. Two options were considered – Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly and Temple Sinai in Marblehead, and earlier this year, members voted, 23-22, to merge with B’nai Abraham.

Cheatham said the decline in membership is similar to what many other synagogues are now facing across the country. He pointed to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center that reported just 31 percent of American Jews belonged to a synagogue, with one in five describing themselves as having no religion.


“We’re a classic example of what was described in the Pew Report,” said Cheatham.

Former members of the Salem temple, which held its last service in May, will begin a new diaspora, with many joining B’nai Abraham.

Meanwhile in Beverly, Temple B’nai Abraham readies for the newcomers.

“It’s a definite boost for us,” said Alan Pierce, the conservative temple’s president. Pierce said proceeds from the sale of the Salem building would be used carefully, with most of the money placed in savings accounts and some used to maintain the former temple’s cemetery in Danvers.

In recent years, B’nai Abraham also has weathered a change in membership. The synagogue, which began in a building at the corner of Rantoul and Pleasant streets in 1908, opened its temple on East Lothrop Street in 1962 at the peak of its membership, when about 300 Jewish families belonged.

By 2008, membership had dropped to 140 families. Since then, the temple has implemented a strategic plan that called for a balanced budget, more adult education, and social action programs. Three years after hiring Rabbi Alison Adler and adding new programs — such as a 100-hour study course on Judaism — membership has grown to about 185 families, and it is expected to push over 200 with the arrival of new members from Temple Shalom.

Meanwhile, the synagogue is honoring the memory of the former Salem temple in several ways.


It has placed the old temple’s eternal light in its chapel; added memorial plaques from Temple Shalom; and is disassembling an ark, where the Torah scrolls are kept, that will be placed in storage.

Representatives of B’nai Abraham also filmed a tour of the Salem synagogue before it closed and conducted interviews with congregants, which the temple sent to the American Jewish Historical Society. In addition, Torahs from Temple Shalom have been added to the B’nai Abraham sanctuary, and others were given to temples in Swampscott, Marblehead, Peabody, and Austin, Texas.

B’nai Abraham also is planning to hold an event next year to mark the reopening of a time capsule that was buried at the Salem temple when it opened in 1952.

Deborah Vozella, B’nai Abraham educational director, said the temple is dedicated to keeping the history of the old Salem temple alive.

“We’re not just embracing the people of the community and whatever funding they may be bringing,” she said. “We’re ensuring that their legacy remains alive.”

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at srosenberg@globe.
. Follow him on Twitter @WriteRosenberg.