Buffalo Jews: Shuffling Off

Thursday, April 26, 2012
Staff Writer

The Jewish landmarks of my childhood in the Jewish section of north Buffalo are now Christian.

Temple Emanu-El, the Conservative congregation where I became bar mitzvah under the tutelage of one of the denomination’s most prominent scholars, Rabbi Isaac Klein, is now a church. So is the Modern Orthodox shul down the block. And another synagogue a few blocks away.

Besides the sole remaining Orthodox shul in the heart of the North Park area, which serves a diminishing Jewish community, and another, now a Chabad synagogue on the outskirts of the neighborhood, there are few Jews, no more kosher restaurant or kosher butcher there.

Which is symptomatic of Buffalo Jewry, which has shrunk from a population of 26,000 a half-century ago, to an estimated 10,000-13,000 today.

What brings this to mind is the news this week that two congregations in the suburb of Amherst that have seen their membership rolls slip in recent years – Temple Beth Am, Reform; and Temple Sinai, Reconstructionist – have voted to merge. The new entity will be known as Congregation Shir Shalom (Song of Peace), and will meet in Beth Am’s building; Temple Sinai’s will be sold.

The merger proposal passed “overwhelmingly,” Jill Hamilton, president of Temple Sinai, told the Buffalo News. “In a way it’s bittersweet, because it means we’ll be closing our building eventually.”

What’s happening in my hometown is happening in small – and getting smaller – Jewish communities around the country, especially in northern and Midwest Rust Belt cities, especially as the effects of the economic recession continue to be felt. Without the critical mass that Greater New York Jewry enjoys, these “out-of-town” communities are downsizing budget and staff, closing institutions like day schools, and merging, often across denominational barriers.

When I get to return infrequently to Buffalo, there’s no Temple Emanu-El to visit. It merged several years ago with Temple Beth David, another Conservative congregation, into a shul that adopted the name Temple Shaarey Zedek. Which no longer exists – it merged a few years ago with fellow Conservative congregation Temple Beth El into a synagogue named Temple Beth Tzedek.

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