Saying goodbye

Bess Schwartz unlocks the front door of Anshe Poale Zedek synagogue with a steady hand on a warm Wednesday afternoon. Today marks the 69-year anniversary of Bess’ membership with the synagogue. It is also one of her last days in this building.

In a few short months, the Schwartzes — one of the oldest Jewish families in Manitowoc — will leave for retirement in Milwaukee. And when they move, they will leave behind a synagogue with a rich, vibrant history and a shaky, uncertain future.

Over the last 50 years, the congregation dropped from over 100 members to barely over 10 in attendance each week. With only a handful of new members and no children joining the synagogue, the members of Anshe Poale Zedek contacted the Jewish Community Legacy Project to begin a painful process — closing its doors.

“It’s a fact that these communities can’t ignore anymore,” said JCLP Vice President Noah Levine. “When membership keeps dropping and the overall age keeps rising, there’s no choice but to make changes. It can be a very upsetting, guilt-ridden process, but it’s something they have to face.”

Across America, the JCLP and other organizations currently work with over 100 other Jewish communities with numbers dwindling below 30 members. In Manitowoc, the story of Anshe Poale Zedek is only one of many small-town synagogues across the state and the country that are struggling to survive.

A home away from home

Founded in 1900, Anshe Poale Zedek is one of the longest-standing religious establishments in Manitowoc. As Bess gives a quick tour, her voice echoes in the empty quiet.

This is where she and her husband Bill were married, where she mourned the death of her family members and shared in the celebration of each year’s holidays. Facing east at the front of the hall is the ark, a wooden cabinet holding the five scrolls of the Torah.

The Torah, she explains, is the heart of the Jewish faith. However, the scrolls can’t be removed from the ark and a service can’t be conducted without ten adult members of the synagogue present.

It’s becoming harder and harder for this synagogue to bring together those necessary ten members each week, Bess says. There won’t be service this Saturday. Not enough members can make it.

Downstairs is a kosher kitchen that used to be packed to the brim with women who loved to cook, a community space where her children were taught to read Hebrew each Sunday. Chairs are lined up in front of a stage where the congregations used to perform skits and plays each spring and fall. The walls are covered in pictures, memories stretching back for decades.

This building is a home for Bess, as much so as the house on Rheame Road that she and her husband will soon leave. Its decline has been long-coming, Bess says. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

A rise and a fall

The history of the decline of Judaism in Manitowoc is tightly interwoven with the history of the city itself.

The Manitowoc congregation was first organized in 1900, after meeting informally in homes for years. After 50 years, the synagogue grew to encompass over 60 families each week, overflowing the original one-room synagogue and moving in 1953 to accommodate rising membership.

For decades, the building was busy with blintz buffets, bake sales, bazaars, auctions, card parties and rummage sales. Rabbis came and went, classes of young girls and boys were bar and bat mitzvahed. And for its 90th anniversary, the synagogue brought legendary violinist Itzhak Perlman to town for a concert.

Not even thirty years later, the doors of Anshe Poale Zedek are closing.

Part of this decline is a reflection of the city of Manitowoc. Throughout the first few decades of the 20th century, city population steadily increased to a peak of 33,430 in 1970 before beginning to plateau.

Now, the population rests at 33,010. This means that in 45 years, the city lost around 100 people rather than increasing its population. Yet while the overall population of Manitowoc has modestly declined, the Jewish population dropped dramatically in those 45 years, leaving only a handful behind.

This is not uncommon. Nationwide religious participation has declined in each generation, and Christian churches have similarly been forced to downsize or close. But Judaism in small towns has taken an even harder hit than Christian denominations, not just in Manitowoc, but throughout the state and the country.

A decline and a shift

The Jewish Community Legacy Project was created almost 40 years ago to address the issue of declining small-town Jewish populations. In many rural communities throughout the Northeast, South and Midwest, the JCLP has seen synagogue membership dwindle to a point where a congregation’s future is no longer viable.

This is partially caused by a national shift away from strict religious practice of any faith. Each generation is becoming less active in their participation. For the generation born from 1928 to 1945, weekly participation in a faith community is reported at around 51 percent. For the Baby Boomers, this drops to 38 percent and those born after 1965 report only 28 to 34 percent attending services weekly.

For many Jewish populations, this leaves the older generations in charge of keeping the faith alive. As those generations lose mobility and begin to move into retirement and assisted living centers, the active population dwindles even further, losing the membership and funding to keep the faith alive any further.

Across America, the JCLP has connected with around 150 other communities that fit the same profile as Manitowoc — small, isolated communities of Jews that have dwindled to less than 30 members.

At first, the JCLP was formed to create an “end-of-life” plan for these communities. Steps of the plan included setting up endowments to care for cemeteries and to support proper funerals and other services for remaining members. But this transition goes far beyond simply closing down a synagogue when it has a small handful of congregates.

“It’s not sudden,” Rabbi David Fine said. “We’ve been watching this and feeling it for some time. So rather than looking solely at numbers we want to look at how we continue to grow in relationship with each other, strengthen our roots in Judaism and still reinforce our ability to make a difference in the world even if our numbers are decreasing.

Fine leads transition management for the Union for Reform Judaism, which makes his job similar to Levine’s. He began as a rabbi in a small town in Michigan, at a synagogue at the end of its days, and he saw this experience unfold firsthand.

Now, he works with the smallest of the 900 synagogues that the URJ supports across the country. Although he works with many synagogues whose congregations are declining, Fine is firm in his belief that this doesn’t reflect a nationwide decline in Judaism, or even in small-town Judaism.

He and Levine have both found that most of their transitional work deals with small-town synagogues in the Northwest whose main economic centers are also in decline. The former Jewish population in these towns hasn’t disappeared; rather, they have migrated to a stronger industrial hub.

Meanwhile, small-town synagogues in growing areas in states such as Montana and Alaska are seeing their populations grow as well. And synagogues in cities such as Milwaukee remain stalwart centers for the faith. These population shifts have nothing to do with a religion, but rather with regional issues.

"It’s not the demise of the small town congregations,” Fine said. “It’s a shift. It’s not as dim or as grim as it may appear."

This doesn’t, however, change the experience for the synagogues who are in decline.

The main problem for congregations such as Anshe Poale Zedek is how to provide support for those who remain. The closing of a synagogue is more profound and more destructive for a Jewish population than the closing of a church might be for Christians.

As a minority religion, there are less Jews and less synagogues, especially in rural settings. Many small towns have already seen their synagogues merge due to low attendance, or only had one synagogue to begin with. There simply aren’t options for the people left when a synagogue closes.

For instance, if a church in Manitowoc closed, members could find a new home right down the street. With multiple Lutheran and Episcopalian churches in the city, they might not even have to change denomination. But the closest alternative for a synagogue is a 30 to 45-minute drive away in Green Bay or Sheboygan.

So what is left for those who remain in Manitowoc? This is when it’s time for a congregation to compromise, Levine says.

Members like Bill Schwartz — a board member who jokes about sharing a last name, but no family, with Bess — make up the the few left in charge of their synagogue’s organizations, fundraisers and services.

They are also in charge of some of the most difficult decisions — what to cut. In past years, the synagogue ended their Hebrew school and their youth organization. When a rabbi left, they made the decision to not hire a new one, considering it an unnecessary expense when services aren’t possible most weekends.

The most recent — and the most difficult — decision was made only months ago. With so few members and such high overhead costs, it was time to say goodbye to the synagogue itself.

“It’s a sad occasion when you close the door,” Bill said. “It’s so very hard. Our faith is fading. It’s such a shame to lose such a tradition. The history is just forgotten.”

The remaining congregation will meet at First Presbyterian Church, which offered up chapel space on Saturdays and storage for the Torah scrolls, plaques commemorating over a century of members buried by the synagogue and other important artifacts.

This decision to leave their old building is a smart one, Levine says, and many synagogues choose to downsize to save expenses. Yet it is also one of the hardest decisions that he sees congregations make.

“If you are 60 years old or 70 or 80 and your father or your grandfather was involved in starting the synagogue, it’s a sad feeling knowing that this institution may not be there any longer,” Levine said. ‘Many people ask, ‘Am I the one to have to make the decision? Can I do this?’”

Although the physical building of the synagogue will be closed, this is not the end of the road for Anshe Poale Zedek. Not quite yet. Many of the communities that the JCLP works with will keep holding services for as long as members show interest. Some will continue for 20 more years, until the last of the congregation’s members have been buried.

But regardless, Levine says that these communities will eventually die out. In the next 10 to 15 years, he expects to see up to another 100 communities go through this planning process. And sooner or later, each of those synagogues will close their doors.

Leaving a legacy

Yet before these synagogues cease to exist, there are important steps to take. Torahs must be donated to new or underprivileged synagogues around the world. Pictures of confirmation classes and holiday events must be preserved in archives and museums.

Most importantly, Levine believes that each synagogue must create its own legacy. For some, this means creating scholarships or donating to local food banks. Others create programs to improve Holocaust education in their local school districts, sponsor student trips to Israel or create funds for Jewish children’s camps.

These decisions are unique to each congregation, allowing them to mold the future of their communities just as they molded their pasts.

“The history of small town Jewry is incredibly important,” Levine said. “The contributions they have made to the American Jewish scene have been tremendous. These synagogues shaped their communities, and they will still shape their communities after they are gone. They are so tenaciously holding onto Jewish tradition and Jewish practices in a way that is truly inspiring and must be told.”

Part of this process includes preserving the history of these impactful synagogues, and this work of preservation has become the work of Brad Lichtenstein, an award-winning documentarian whose work is published by PBS and Frontline. Lichtenstein is close to unveiling his latest project, which focuses on the fading of Jewish populations in small towns throughout the country.

“Maybe the most important thing is that there’s a danger that their entire histories and stories could be forgotten,” Lichtenstein said. “There could be nobody there to tell the story."

For three years now, Lichtenstein has split his time between four different small-town communities throughout America. And although each town’s story is different, Lichtenstein noticed a common theme connecting them together — the balance between a desire to keep Judaism alive and the reality of faded traditions.

In the final days of these communities, Lichtenstein chronicles the same process that Anshe Poale Zedek is currently experiencing. He describes these moments as some of the most difficult and the most inspiring moments of a synagogue’s history. As a Jew himself, he often found himself moved to tears by the people he interviewed. Yet he was also proud to see the fervor with which many locals fought to keep their faith alive and vibrant.

“It’s a whole range of emotion,” Lichtenstein said. “It’s hard to say there’s any one emotion. Some of it is very moving and remorseful, some of it is very joyous. You learn what it truly means to be a Jew. In this loss, you see what that means.”

Ultimately, Fine and Levine emphasize that many of these congregations can’t control the ebb and flow of membership. As populations shift towards cities and smaller towns plateau or decrease in size, it’s an inevitable conclusion that synagogues will be forced to downsize. And as remaining members fight to keep their faith alive, Fine hopes that they feel proud of the time they have had.

"I have a special place in my heart for these synagogues,” Fine said. “For the people who remain with these synagogues… It’s not their fault. In fact, they’ve been heroic in holding up the institution for as long as they possibly could."

Never truly gone

The legacy of Anshe Poale Zedek is undecided. For now, there is an element of uncertainty to each week, to each passing day. The loss of Bess and her husband is just another piece to the puzzle of this synagogue’s future.

This is a loss for Bess as well. When she and Milton leave for Milwaukee, they leave behind a synagogue that played host to every highlight of their life here in Manitowoc. As she sits in a pew on this summer afternoon, the main hall flooded with sunlight, she is surrounded with memories.

Bess remembers the holidays when all five of her children came home from college, often bringing guests, and their family took up an entire pew. She remembers the casual gossip after a service, the warm welcome she received each holiday. She remembers hope and happiness, peace and comfort, through good times and bad. 

“It’s hard,” Bess says, tears in her eyes, voice cracking with emotion. “It’s very hard. There’s so many memories. It’s not the type of thing you want to leave, not ever. It’s not the type of thing you can leave. You carry it with you. It’ll never be gone. Not really.