DECEMBER 7, 2017 – LAWRENCE – It all began when a wave of Russian and Polish Jews came to Lawrence at the turn of the 20th century when the city welcomed immigrants to work in the textile industries. Later, Jewish merchants, some from Lithuania, opened dry goods and retail shops.
These days, some of the descendants of those immigrants are back in the mills, worshipping at Congregation Beth Israel of the Merrimack Valley, a small but active conservative synagogue on the third floor of one of the converted factory buildings at the Riverwalk in Lawrence.
While the outside looks like a renovated mill office building, the inside – with its exposed brick and historic ark – feels more like a house of worship. Beth Israel moved there 18 months ago, after selling its property in Andover.
The only remaining conservative synagogue in the Merrimack Valley, Beth Israel’s history has shown resilience amid change as the Jewish community left the city and spread into surrounding suburbs.
Congregation Beth Israel was established in Andover in 2004 when two old congregations combined. Temple Beth El of Lowell and Congregation Tifereth Israel of Andover were both hundred-year-old synagogues with storied traditions when they came together.
The plan going forward was to build a new synagogue in West Andover.
But 10 years later with a few economic downturns, trying to build became too expensive. The congregation sold the land in West Andover, and then the old synagogue on North Main Street.
Now, Beth Israel is planning for its future while maintaining its tradition.“We need to know where we want to be, what is our mission, what we stand for, and what makes us special,” said Robin Rose, the congregation’s co-president. A committee is looking at demographics and spaces for the next step.
Meanwhile, the 50- to 60-member congregation is very active in worship, social action, fundraising, and social activities. Rose described Beth Israel as a synagogue where people are welcomed, and “everyone knows your name.”
Rose, who partners with co-president Howard Spector, described the core members of the congregation as “traditional,” but said there are progressive elements outside the conservative sphere as well. While traditional Shabbat services are held on Saturday mornings, Shabbat Chai, a musical service, takes place two Fridays a month. The evening includes a dinner, followed by a service led by Bashert, the congregation’s musical group.
Rabbi Howard Mandel has been Beth Israel’s part-time rabbi since 2013. He said that most synagogues are experiencing changes. “How do we make services joyful and meaningful to congregants and community?” he asked. And “How do we bring it up to the 21st century?”
The downside of the new space was having to close the religious school. Rose said Beth Israel has partnered with Temple Emanuel in Andover so that children could attend religious school there. In addition, members can hold events, including funerals, at Temple Emanuel.
“Our current space is good for 80 people,” Rose said. “After that, the challenge is where to hold larger events.” This year, Rosh Hashanah services were held at the Andover Country Club, while Yom Kippur services were held in the function room at Salvatore’s restaurant in the Riverwalk.
The congregation may be small, but it has a full calendar of programs, especially around holidays, according to Rose.
“We always have food and activities around the holidays,” she said. This fall, the congregation held its “Sometimes” Annual Sukkah Party at a congregant’s house. Last spring, it held a Yom HaShoah commemoration with a dinner and a guest speaker, and a coffee house for Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.
Other social events have included bowling nights, a comedy night, the Jewish Film Festival, a holiday cooking series, and more. Educational outings included visits to the Vilna Shul in Boston and the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I.
But it is the congregation’s passion for social action that resonates most, Rose said. Last month, in addition to serving meals at the Lazarus House in Lawrence, members also participated in the annual Hike for Hope to benefit the homeless shelter. They also participate in monthly builds for Habitat for Humanity.
The challenges of building membership and finances are pivotal in the process of re-envisioning and moving forward.
“We are currently targeting empty nesters. Trying to recruit young families is difficult at this time, but we do need to increase number to survive,” Rose said. A sustaining dues model has been implemented where people can pay what they can.
“We find once new members are engaged, they often pay more,” Rose said.