REVERE – The siddurim and yahrzeit plaques wait to be buried in the temple cemetery. Some of the Torahs are now at military bases; another is getting ready to be shipped to Kenya.
Temple B’nai Israel, Revere’s last synagogue, observed its final service on May 24. By Aug. 7, everything was cleaned out, and the building was ready for its new occupant, the Bosniaks Society of Boston Islamic and Cultural Center.
So what now?
This month marks the first High Holidays that B’nai Israel’s congregants, many of whom have attended for decades, have nowhere to go. While other local congregations have offered to host them as their guests, some say they’re simply not ready to attend services elsewhere, and don’t know exactly what they plan to do.
“I’m really at a loss, I just don’t know where to go, because it was always home,” said Debby Cherry, who attended B’nai Israel since the age of five and served as president. “But then I thought, ‘How could I not be in a synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur?’ So I don’t know what the answer is.”
Jamie Farrell, who served as president of B’nai Israel until 2018, has similar ambivalence. “As wonderful as the High Holidays are, ‘What are you doing for the High Holidays?’ is a question I’ve been asked more than any other since this process began,” she said. “Congregations in the area have been so generous in inviting us to join them for the High Holidays, and I’m so appreciative of that, because it’s going to be very strange, and there’s probably going to be official grieving that happens because the space we’re in is the not the space we were in before.”
For both Cherry and Farrell, the High Holidays conjure up powerful memories of the shul that they loved. Cherry remembers Irving Taub, a man whose baritone solos on Kol Nidre, which he continued to sing until the last year of his life, always made her cry. Farrell remembers the “big group of bubbes” who doted on her son, and the feeling of holding hands with her husband and son during Friday night services.
“It was a very heymish place. It was a synagogue where, when you walked in there, you were home,” said Cherry. “You feel embraced and enveloped when you’re inside the building, and when the sun comes through the skylight on the High Holidays, it’s incredible. The place just shines – it twinkles.”
Temple B’nai Israel was founded in 1906 in the Beachmont section of Revere by recently arrived immigrants from Eastern Europe. At first it was Orthodox; but, later became the only Conservative congregation in Revere. For decades, B’nai Israel was the center of a thriving, close-knit Jewish community, and Cherry remembers pews so packed during the High Holidays that two separate services were necessary.
But the congregation started dwindling in the ’70s as Jews moved out of Revere. By 2017, it was running out of money and people, and a heartbreaking decision – one everyone had been putting off for years – finally needed to be made.
Farrell enlisted the help of Noah Levine, senior vice president of the Jewish Community Legacy Project, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that advises congregations struggling to chart a path forward. Levine guided the congregation through sensitive discussions about its future, and eventually the entire congregation decided that the time had come.
The synagogue hired a lawyer and a real estate broker, and sold the property to the Bosnian mosque and community center for $750,000. Cherry said the congregation was happy and moved by the sale, because like Ashkenazi Jews, Bosnians are Eastern Europeans who were victims of persecution and genocide. In a strange twist, B’nai Israel has donated to Bosnia before, though it was forgotten long ago. While cleaning out files, Cherry happened upon a 20-year-old letter thanking the synagogue for donating an old refrigerator to a Bosnian family in crisis.
Cherry and Farrell helped with a lengthy process of clearing out and sprucing up. Religious items were donated to synagogues that needed them. Much of the administrative records were donated to the Jewish Heritage Center in Boston, the archives of New England’s Jewish communities. The congregation also held open houses for people to claim family yahrzeit plaques, leading to an outpouring of nostalgic stories. While the process was undoubtedly sad, it was also an uplifting chance for the congregation to reconnect with its past and each other.
The same could be said of the final service on May 24, which aimed to be “not a funeral, but a celebration of all things past,” as Farrell said. The service, led by Rabbi Misha Clebaner, was rich in symbolism. In between prayers about friendship, peace, and light, the congregation wrapped a Torah and then presented it to an Air Force chaplain. At the end of the service, members removed the Mezuzot from the doors, extinguished the Ner Tamid, and sounded the Shofar.
“We wanted to balance the sadness we knew we’d inevitably feel with joy, because so much of our time there was joyful,” said Farrell. “We wanted the service not to be about ‘This is the end, this is the end,’ because in many ways this is not the end. It’s like when you lose someone, it’s not the end of your relationship with them. You think about them, you carry with you what you learned from them, and they still bring you joy.”