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It's goodbye, hello for a congregation

The Baltimore Sun

Members of Beth Jacob Congregation are celebrating their last Shabbat service today.

Once the only Modern Orthodox community on Park Heights Avenue, Beth Jacob's membership has now dwindled to about 500, with about 125 regularly attending Saturday morning worship services.

And with the majority of its members over 75, Beth Jacob had stopped operating its religious school because there weren't enough children.

So come next week, the 69-year-old congregation will be welcomed into its new spiritual home at Beth Tfiloh Congregation in Pikesville - joining other synagogues that in recent years have shifted from Northwest Baltimore into the nearby suburbs.

"We think this is in the best interest of everyone concerned, that we join with Beth Tfiloh," said Beth Jacob President Robert M. Klein, 71. "Both congregations have worked very good [with] each other."

About 87 percent of Beth Jacob's members voted in March to merge with Beth Tfiloh, according to its leadership. Klein prefers to call it a union of two synagogues.

Beth Tfiloh takes ownership of Beth Jacob's assets, such as its synagogue and the school building - now leased to an Orthodox school for girls.

There has been speculation that The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore might be interested in Beth Jacob's site because it's across the street from the Jewish Community Center campus, near Northern Parkway. However, The Associated's chief planning officer, Mark Freedman, said in an e-mail that there are no formal plans at this time.

Religious items such as the congregation's Torah scrolls will move to Beth Tfiloh. Beth Tfiloh, which is building a new sanctuary and lobby, will dedicate one wing of the synagogue to Beth Jacob and display memorabilia there, said Beth Tfiloh president David Schwartz.

"They're leaving a beautiful tradition and a beautiful history, and they're coming to one," he said.

Beth Tfiloh is already a large congregation with an active school and several Shabbat services. Together, Beth Jacob and Beth Tfiloh will become even bigger, with more than 1,500 families.

"We benefit by getting more members but more importantly we benefit by getting more involved members who want to work, who want to make it better," Schwartz said.

"We certainly don't want to bury them or sink them or take them over," he added.

Beth Tfiloh has appointed some members of Beth Jacob's board into leadership positions at their new synagogue, Klein and Schwartz said.

"Whatever I can do for them, if they ask me, I'll do it," Klein said.

As modern Orthodox congregations, both congregations use microphones or sound systems that have been approved for use on the Sabbath, when Jews are expected to refrain from doing work. Most members of Beth Jacob drive to services, said Klein, whose father and uncle were founders of the congregation.

Beth Jacob was established in 1938 as an alternative to other Orthodox congregations in that area that did not permit men to work on the Sabbath, said Harry Zemel, vice president and former president. Now 80, his family joined Beth Jacob when he was 17.

Until now, Beth Jacob has continued on the site where it began - once home to a "clapboard shack" that housed a school, Zemel said. That building later became the gymnasium of the Hebrew school, he said.

The congregation grew until it and the Hebrew school became one of the largest in Baltimore during the 1950s and 1960s, Zemel said.

But membership started to dwindle as more families moved further northwest to Owings Mills and Randallstown, he said. Now of the 125 who regularly attend Saturday services, the majority are 75 years old or older, Zemel said.

Beth Jacob has undergone the merger process before. In 1993, Ohr Knesseth Israel-Anshe Sphard Congregation joined Beth Jacob, and some of the leaders from that group are still active, said Rabbi Dr. Gavriel Newman, now entering his ninth year as spiritual leader of Beth Jacob.

Newman, a psychotherapist, said he is starting a new congregation.

The group will be called Kehal Yaakov, or Community of Jacob, and will begin worship services during the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur next month, Newman said. The rabbi has made temporary arrangements to use the Park Heights Avenue building once occupied by the Har Sinai Congregation and now owned by the Yeshivat Rambam School. (Har Sinai moved to Owings Mills in 2002.)

"They have a gorgeous sanctuary standing empty on Saturdays. My plan is to fill it with prayer and with song and with joy," Newman said.

Although the transition has been easy, Klein describes it as "a very emotional, traumatic situation."

"After 69 or 70 years of a synagogue, you have feelings. It's as if you're losing your home or giving up your home," he said.

However, "as we see times going on and not getting new members and not growing, it is the right move."

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