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Newton Synagogue Goes From Suburbs to City

TODD FEINBURG

The architect’s rendering of a remodeled “campus” that now houses Congregation Kehillath Israel and Congregation Mishkan Tefila in
Coolidge Corner. Renovations are ongoing.

It’s hard to say that Congregation Mishkan Tefila faced an emergency, because the iceberg it was preparing to hit was still a long way off and approaching slowly. Further, the synagogue was expecting a $20 million windfall from the sale of its Newton property to Boston College. That’s the sort of problem that other congregations can only dream of having.
There had long been a dearth of young families pulling into the parking lot on Hammond Pond Parkway, and the challenge was how to turn that around. “As much as the building was a beautiful one, and it was our home, it had become an albatross,” reported temple president Paul Gershkowitz. “It was built to hold a large community, one of 900 families, and we were down to 200 families. The main sanctuary, other than the high holidays, was basically empty, and the building was impossible to maintain in terms of expense and time.“
It’s a familiar story, and the Greater Boston Jewish Community sees the quiet temples and the mergers taking place. Leaders also know that times have changed, that fewer Jews are joining synagogues and the challenge of getting families in the doors is not getting easier. Still, many are frozen in fear, uncertain how to adjust.
While any organization would envy having the resources to weather the storm that CMT had coming, a windfall, as many Power Ball winners can tell you, can be as big of a problem as poverty and often leads to the same place. Less than five years ago, the JCC of the North Shore in Marblehead sold its Middleton campgrounds for an infusion of $3.6 million in cash, but management problems remained in place and the windfall went to maintaining the status quo. A turnaround would only come after the money was gone.
“I’m looking at Mishkan Tefila and trying to figure out how to find a business model that can succeed,” explained Gershkowitz. “Our leadership team is incredible – filled with passionate, talented people who want to build a new model to succeed into the future.”

Since CMT was struggling to attract new members to its Newton facility, the congregation decided not to relocate to a new, standalone facility. “From the beginning, the leadership team felt that to move from one building to another was going to be a failure. We decided we were better off finding a new route,” said Gershkowitz.
The bold idea, as it turned out, was offered from the outside. “Our vision came from Congregation Kehillath Israel, who invited us to join their campus, where we would be one of four pillars where each
one brings something different to the campus,” offered Sharon Diamond, a member of CMT’s board.
“Coolidge Corner is really the heartbeat of Judaism in the Boston/Brookline area,” continued Diamond. “We’re really excited about being in an urban location. That was really appealing to us.” About
KI, Gershkowitz added, “They are very forward thinking, and they’ve been working on this campus approach for about eight years.”
As if selling their 24-acre property and moving into the city weren’t enough, CMT was reconfigured in other ways. “Not only were we going into a new location, we were also going in with different clergy.
Our former rabbi left at the end of June,” said Gershkowitz. “Rabbi Marcia Plumb has been associated with us for the past few years, but now she is our rabbi, at least for this year.” Diamond sees the addition of Rabbi Plumb as strategic. “She embodies what we’re trying to become as an organization  that is, an organization that is building community though caring, by being decent, by helping one another out, we’ve become very spiritual in nature, these are all things she brings to the campus.
Gershkowitz reminds often that this is not a merger. “We had our High Holy Day services at what’s called Epstein Hall, we had standing room only at times, and to me it was a huge success.” But when the renovations are finished, they will no longer be sharing facilities. ”We are collaborating to go through a renovation process that will give CMT its own sacred place, but we’ll also be a part of the campus on Harvard Street with KI.”
It’s that combination of being a standalone synagogue in a multi-faceted campus in a center of Judaism that makes this move work for CMT.

 

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