LOWELL – To sell or not to sell?
The question had been on people’s minds for a while, and the decision to ultimately sell the Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley building on Forest Street in Lowell in November proved to be a wrenching choice for the congregation. The spiritual home had been a comforting place for 60 years, and the sale was years in the making.
The story had played out at other local synagogues that have closed or merged in recent years. Bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, baby namings, Jewish learning – experiences that included everything from carefree youth to maturity and old age – had seeped within its walls and the memory banks of its members. But the same concrete walls also were seeping moisture, and the roof was deteriorating. The temple’s overseers decided that it was time to move.
After selling the 5,700-square-foot building at 101 West Forest St. to the Assembly of God US Missions, the temple moved into the second floor of the Gateway office building on Warren Street in Lowell, just 2½ miles away.
While it now shares the building with neighbors such as the Social Security office and the Middlesex District Attorney, the relocation signals a new beginning for the congregation’s 55 families. Temple Emanuel now has the advantages of being handicapped accessible and located in the heart of downtown Lowell. It also is closer to the temple’s many social action activities.
“Three times a year we help serve over 200 lunches for the Lowell Transitional Living Center serving homeless children, we run a winter clothing drive, and we collect food and toiletries for the Greater Merrimack Valley Food Bank. Being in downtown Lowell feels right for us,” said temple President Robin Frisch.
Jill Barry, Temple Emanuel’s religious school teacher, said she and her husband, Michael – who is not Jewish – have five children ages 14 to 19 who they’re raising Jewish and have always felt comfortable at the temple. The new space further enhances their connection, she said.
“I grew up in a modern Orthodox synagogue. I was looking for something different. What I love about TEMV is its diversity.
“TEMV has always felt accepting. Wherever I am in my Judaism, we always felt we fit in.”
Now, rather than teaching classes in a windowless basement in the old location, the new space brings in sunlight and is comfortable for Barry’s 11 students. Rabbi Robin Sparr, the school principal, also teaches Hebrew school classes.
Longtime congregant Marylin Gallant, a past president, said membership started to decline after Rabbi Everett Gendler retired in 1995 after 24 years. Under Gendler’s leadership, the Forest Street temple installed the world’s first solar-powered Eternal Light in 1978. Gendler also played a key role involving Jewish leaders in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.
Gallant said that by 2003, membership started to noticeably decrease.
She thinks membership is cyclical, with families leaving after their children become bar and bat mitzvah.
“Four or five years ago, it started to turn around,” she said. “Even this year, knowing we were moving but didn’t know where, new families with kids joined.” Sparr served as the temple’s cantorial soloist for several years before her ordination as a rabbi in 2014. She brings energy, warmth, and music into the temple, said Frisch.
From about 1950 – before the Forest Street temple was completed in 1959 – members met in homes. The synagogue is now looking forward to ushering in its 70th anniversary with events occurring throughout the year, culminating in January 2020.
Frisch said on Feb. 8 and 10, there will be celebrations, a grand opening, a performance by a bell choir, and a rededication of the new space. There is a new ark, but the same Torahs, including one from the town of Sobeslav in the Czech Republic that belonged to a congregation that was wiped out in the Holocaust, are part of the new temple.
Trustee and publicity chair Dana Rudolph said a hallmark of Temple Emanuel is its appeal to people of all socioeconomic levels and its openness to interfaith families. “We are very inclusive. We accept ‘pledges.’ People pledge what they can pay at the beginning of the year. It’s confidential. We have funds where the rabbi can help people in need. We pull together in many ways when people need help.”