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July 11, 1975 - Image 2

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1975-07-11

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2 Friday, July 11, 1975


Purely Commentary

Synagogues and Bankruptcies:
Many Sad Past Experiences,
New Edifice Complex Lessons

The local synagogue experience became a sensation.
The New York Times picked up the story, from the syn-
agogue itself and from The Jewish News. The Detroit News
speculated whether it might be a first-time synagogue
bankruptcy. The editor of the Cleveland Jewish News, Jerry
D. Barach in his "Editorial Notes," wrote a column "On
Synagogues and Bankruptcy." Barach, who is a devoutely
dedicated Jew and a strict observer of Jewish traditions,

It was bound to happen sooner or later.
Over-ambitious building plans coupled with
decreased commitment was bound to produce a con-
gregation which has gone bankrupt.
It has happened to a Conservative congregation
in Detroit. Though believed to be a first in the nation
for a synagogue, this type of thing could very likely
happen elsewhere under like conditions.
According to a New York Times story, Adat
Shalom Congregation in affluent Farmington Hills,
a Detroit suburb, filed June 5 under. Chapter XI of
the Federal Bankruptcy Law when it found itself
unable to pay $4 million in debts. The congregation
was allowed to retain possession of its property
while it works out repayment of its creditors.
The story goes on to tell that the 840-family con-
gregation was forced into bankruptcy because one of
its debtors, the contractor for its new synagogue, re-
fused to accept a $240,000 payment on the construc-
tion, contending that it ought to receive an addi-
tional $300,000 because of damages caused by
synagogue delays.
Without going into too many more details, I
think the point is made that bankruptcy is the ulti-
mate price that can be expected as the result of the
churchification of institutionalization of Jewish re-
ligious life.
We have built beautiful, expensive edifices that
everyone avoids like the plague most of the year. To
spend millions for a huge synagogue building only to
fill it two or three times a year is about as nonsensi-
cal a waste of money as can be imagined.
Judaism does not exist in cathedral-like struc-
tures. It exists in one's "neshama," one's soul. And
if it doesn't have a home there, it won't have one in a
beautiful $4-million, $5-million or $6-million build-

Edifice Complex and Resultant Financial Crises for Syn-
agogues Arouses National Interest . . . Story of Previous
Experiences and Community's Mortar Problems

1850 as an Orthodox congregation. When Beth El intro-
duced ritual changes at the dedication of its Rivard St.
Synagogue in 1861, 17 members withdrew and organized
a new Orthodox synagogue, Cong. Shaarey Zedek.
The members rented a hall over Dr. Scherer's Drug
Store at 39 Michigan Grand Ave. (now Kennedy Square)
between Randolph and Bates Sts. In 1864, Shaarey
Zedek purchased the modest frame structure of the St.
Matthew Colored Episcopal Church on Congress and St.
Antoine Sts. and remodeled it into a synagogue.

synagogue goes broke, that there are great debts, that
they'll be met. There was struggle, but the debts were met.
And there was an Orthodox synagogue that was in
much more serious trouble. The difficulties were adjusted,
the obligations were settled, the name of the congregation
was changed and it continues to serve this community.
Synagogues are not the only sufferers from edifice
complex psychoses. Caution must be demanded also in con-
structing other public structures. Perhaps American Jew-
ish communities should he made aware of the need for se'
ice without resorting to the luxurious. It would be wise, L.,
example, for a community like Detroit and its suburbs,
with difficulties for transportation especially for the elders,
to have four or five community centers all able to reach ev-
ery conceivable element of all ages.
The difficulties are confronted in community planning
which needs revision. If it starts with the synagogues per,
haps the influence upon the general community will be ex-

Synagogues Versus Centers

In the fall of 1876, when the membership had grown
to 68 families, the frame building on Congress and St.
Antoine was torn down and the erection of a new syn-
agogue, on the same site, costing $15,000, was begun. On
July 4, 1877, the ceremony of the laying of the corner-
stone for the new synagogue took place.
When the building was completed in 1878, first syn-
agogue edifice to be built by Detroit Jews, discussion
over financial matters arose among the members which
led to the disruption of the congregation. The result was
that the members were unable to pay for the building
and lost it by default.
On April 1, 1879, the synagogue was taken over by
the contractor, former Detroit Mayor Stephen B. Grum-
• mond. The membership divided into three groups, one
meeting in Kittelberg's Hall on Randolph St., another
meeting at Funke's Hall on Macomb St., and the third
meeting at the home of Mr. Kinsell on Gratiot Ave.
In 1880 the membership of Shaarey Zedek dropped to
35. Late in 1881, however, a number of faithful Shaarey
Zedek members, under the leadership of President Reu-
ben Mendelsohn, undertook the task of rebuilding the
membership. They rented the synagogue on Congress
and St. Antoine which they were forced to give up, and
finally purchased it for $10,500 and dedicated it on Feb.
5, 1882. The membership of Shaarey Zedek in that year
was 53.

The points advanced by Barach are well taken. There is
need, however, for a realistic note, at the outset.
The record may as well be set straight. Synagogues
that are overluxuriated and even those constructed mod-
estly are not necessarily immune from financial difficul-
ties. There have been bankruptcies and near bankrupticies
of synagogues.
To historically-minded Irving I. Katz of Temple Beth
El, who has accumulated a mass of historical data about
Detroit Jewry, the Commentator is indebted for the follow-
The second oldest Detroit congregation had serious dif-
ficulties in the early 1930s. Harry Brown was at the time
Temple Beth El, Detroit's oldest Jewish congrega- the chairman of the building committee. He told a gathered
tion now observing its 125th anniversary, was founded in group of congregants on Chicago and Lawton Ayes. that no

A New York Times story from its correspondent in St.
Louis, Mo., describes a conflict in membership appeals be-
tween that city's Jewish Community Center and the syn-
agogues. The story is headlined: "Jews in St. Louis Attend
Centers . . . Some Say Synagogues Give Less, but Cost
More." A problem is exposed which may not be limited to
the Missouri community but could reveal a condition affect-
ing synagogues in all major American cities.
In St. Louis, the Jewish Center is referred to as the "J"
and it is as such that it will be described here.
The NY Times story tells about meetings held with the
director of the "J" by St. Louis rabbis to discuss the prob-
lem, as if there were a solution in facing up to a given situa-
tion by tackling competitive developments in a community.
A proposal for joint memberships certainly sounded utterly
foolish, if the issue revolved around the costs rather than

In the St. Louis dilemma it was indicated that less
than half the city's 50,000 Jews belong to a synagogue
and less than half of the 14,000 "J" members are congre-
gational affiliates.

Is this a St. Louis problem? Or will there be a fuller
realization of a basic fact — that synagogues generally are
losing numerical power and are confronted with serious
problems. Jewish schools in all of the major American cities
are suffering drastic reductions in enrollments, due to the
low birth rate. It costs as much to belong to a Jewish center
as to a synagogue, and the emphasis on the health club as
the center's major attraction has provided a costly way of
life for center-minded Jews. But the synagogue-minded are
finding it more difficult to compete on that score and the
problem is not one of "St. Louis Jews Attend Centers" (to
repeat the major lines in the referred-to NY Times story)
but whether the recreational and the health facility which
provides swimming and hand ball opportunities for Jews is
not exerting a greater influence upon the American Jewish
community than the spiritual Jewish sanctuary. The rabbis
have become worried about it but the problem can't possibly
be tackled until the lay membership indicates concern.
That's when some sort of solution may emerge for the de-
clining synagogue.

SS St. Louis Hurt America's Image as a 'Haven' in 1939


(Copyright 1975, JTA, Inc.)

Today we hear a great
deal about the inscription at
the foot of the Statue of Lib-
erty. The words by poetess
Emma Lazarus, written in
the 1880s, are widely quoted
to stress our tradition never
to refuse shelter to those
who seek freedom on the
shores of these United
Yet the sentiment was
different a generation ago
when America joined the
world at large to close the
doors to those who were
condemned to die in Nazi
The odyssey of the SS St.
Louis and her homeless pas-
sengers is but one example
of the callousness of the
Western world on the eve of
a mass extermination un-
precedented in the history
of mankind.

It was in May of 1939

when Jews were still able
to exit Germany if they
had valid papers and left
their earthly belongings
with the Nazi regime, that
the trek of the SS St. Louis
began in Hamburg. A
group of 937 Jews boarded
the boat seeking survival
across the ocean.

They had bought visas at
Cuban consulates in Ger-
many. Yet, when their ship
arrived in Havana, the gov-
ernment refused to honor
the visas, though similar
papers had been recognized
as valid at many previous
The cause for the change
of policy can be traced to the
International Conference on
Refugees held at. Evian-les-
Bains in the fall of 1938.
The ill-fated conference,
called upon to help Jewish
civilians to escape mass
murder, made the civilized
nations suddenly aware of

By Philip

an influx of newcomers
from the continent. It trig-
gered the decision not to
gtarnt extraordinary privi-
leges or simple protection,
in fact to strengthen estab-
lished restrictions.

When the Cuban admin-
istration turned away the
SS St. Louis from her
shores, the German cap-
tain tried vainly to disem-
bark his cargo of human
misery off the Florida
coast but the ship was
forced back by U.S. gun-
boats. The captain was
reluctant to return his
passengers to Germany.

There were no funds for
refugees except moneys col-
lected by American Jewish
organizations. The leaders
of the Joint Distribution
Committee contacted West-
ern European governments
and finally the small num-
ber of 937 Jews was divided
between England, France,

Belgium and Holland.
Some 750 that were taken
to France, Belgium. and Hol-
land wound up in intern-
ment camps and were
among the very first to be
shipped to the East for mass
extermination when the
low-countries and France
were overrun by the Ger-
man Wehrmacht in the
spring of 1940.
The United States then
favored a strict isolationist
policy. Unlike today, labor
unions were opposed to im-
migration. The tedious proc-
ess of receiving an Ameri-
can immigration visa was
made more diffucult when
the newcomer was re-
quested to prove that he was
paying for his transporta-
tion to the States with his
own money — something
not possible in German-oc-
cupied Europe where all
Jewish bank accounts were

America was still at
peace in 1940, but no ar-
mada of ships was chart-
ered to bring those who
faced certain death into
the freedom of this coun-
try, as it had been done
earlier when Ambassador
Henry Morgenthau ini-
tiated the transfer of
hundreds of thousands of
Armenians from Anatolia;
as is being done now with
the multitude of Viet-

In 1940, the government
didn't pay to bring refugees
to this country, but spent
money to keep them away.
England turned away many
boatloads of unfortunate
ones from Palestine.
Where was the outcry of
humanity, when the "final
solution to the Jewish prob-
lem, - the genocide of a
whole people, was an-
nounced brazenly at the
"Wannsee" conference?

Hebrew U. Adopts
Academic Budget

University adopted a regu-
lar budget for the academic
year 1975/76 in the amount
of $63.4 million which will
be balanced with the help c
increased contributions
from the university's
Friends Organizations from
around the world.
More than 70 percent of
the budget will derive from
public support. Also
adopted was a building and
development budget for the
same period totalling $13.3
The university's develop-
ment program for next year
calls for continued work on
the life sciences complex on
the Givat Ram campus, for
further work on the Rehovot
campus of the faculty of
agriculture and for work on
the Mount Scopus campus.
The university also an-
nounced a five-year develop-
ment plan for all of its cam-

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