Yesterday marked the final Shabbat for Congregation Beit Kodesh, a small Conservative synagogue in Livonia, Michigan that began in 1958. As if this wasn’t already a sad weekend for the families of Congregation Beit Kodesh, news has circulated today that Cantor David Gutman, their beloved cantor emeritus has passed away. For several years after Beit Kodesh had retained its final full-time rabbi, Cantor Gutman held the congregation together and led all prayer services including the High Holidays.
At the end of the summer in 2005 while I was working as the associate director at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor, I was contacted by the leaders of Beit Kodesh who invited me to meet with them in the synagogue’s library. The small group of long-time members explained the history of the congregation to me and their concern that with dwindling membership numbers they wouldn’t be able to keep their doors open much longer. Their building was owned by the Jewish Foundation of Metropolitan Detroit and they ran a small Sunday school program. They asked me if I would be willing to be their rabbinic adviser, serving as a consultant when questions came up, helping to raise some much needed funding in the community, and also providing direction to the Sunday School director. I wasn’t about to let a synagogue go out of business if I could help and so I agreed.
For the next three years (in my spare time) I wrote newsletter articles for the synagogue bulletin, taught the Sunday School families at holiday events, and helped promote the congregation in the community. The highlights during that time were a front-page story in the Detroit Jewish News and the renovation of the congregation’s sanctuary. In December 2008 I sent out a letter to my own contacts in the community explaining that this small congregation was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary, but would soon have to close its doors because of financial reasons. Close to $10,000 trickled in to help Beit Kodesh stay alive for a little longer.
Finally, this month the congregation’s leaders recognized it was time to close. As I told the Detroit Jewish News, “The fact that this small congregation managed to keep its doors open as long as it did is a success story. That they eked out another five years makes them ‘The Little Shul that Could.'”
These days it’s not unusual for small Conservative synagogues to either close or merge with other congregations. The national trend is a response to the growth of Conservative synagogues during the expansion years and today’s difficult economic conditions. For a dwindling Conservative Jewish population here in Metro Detroit, there are too many congregations and they can’t support themselves as their membership rolls decline. The Beit Kodesh leadership should be proud of themselves for sticking around as long as they did in an area without a lot of Jewish people from which to draw.
The men and women of Congregation Beit Kodesh of Livonia, Michigan should be commended for their hard work in maintaining a Jewish presence in an area of Metro Detroit that hasn’t had a large Jewish population for many decades. It is sad whenever a synagogue closes, but Am Yisrael Chai… the Jewish people endures.