After more than 50 years of existence, Congregation Beth Ahm of West Essex in Verona held its final Shabbat service on June 3. The future of the building, at the corner of Grove and Personette avenues, is uncertain but the remaining members will find a new home at B’nai Shalom, a Conservative congregation in West Orange.
In the end, it came down to money, said Allen Paisner, 28, of Verona, who worked in the synagogue office until it closed last week. But to listen to him talk about the
Conservative synagogue, where his grandparents and parents were members before him, it feels like the memories will never run out. “Something special has been lost,” he said. “We were a nice, warm place. There’s something comforting in such a small synagogue.”
Among the last tasks assigned to him was sorting through the books in the library. Some were already packed in boxes for donation, some set aside for burial, and another set placed against the wall to be given to B’nai Shalom.
Debbie Dretel Lawrence, 61, who served as the congregation’s final president, is another third-generation member. Her grandparents joined just one year after its founding in 1936. She remembers from her youth a robust community with a full Hebrew school, when the membership was near its peak of about 350 families, but she acknowledged that the synagogue has always had a niche among older people. It’s just that at some point, she said, it stopped attracting a younger crowd, which would have provided the critical mass necessary for growth. “It’s been a long time coming,” she acknowledged.
Congregants had taken to calling Beth Ahm, founded as the Jewish Community Center of Verona, “the little shul with the big heart.” Closing has taken its emotional toll. But Dretel Lawrence said, “This whole process is something we’ve done together.”
She described the last services as “sad and sweet at the same time.” She added, “There were people there who have been members for a very long time. It was very emotional.” Everyone had the opportunity to have one final aliyah during the Torah service, including Dretel Lawrence.
Looking around, she said, she took comfort in the physical names on the plaques, names she’s known all her life; each one holds a memory. “I find our shul a very comforting place to be. I can still see where my parents sat. I remember coming with my grandparents on Simchat Torah.”
The decision to close came as the synagogue was down to approximately 50 family units, according to Paisner. It was a significant drop from 2011, when the congregation celebrated its 75th anniversary with a gala at the Richfield Regency in Verona and still had about 160 members.
But there were concerns even then.
Throughout its history, the congregation was served by eight rabbis. But it was just two, Rabbi Alter Kriegel and his son Aaron Kriegel, who came to define the congregation. Rabbi Alter Kriegel served the community from 1937 until 1974; his son took the helm in 2001 and retired in 2013. The years that followed were difficult.
Rabbi Mark Biller, who succeeded Aaron Kriegel, tried many creative solutions to attract new members, including his “Top of the Morning Shabbat” in 2015, which offered a casual learning and discussion alternative to traditional services. And while Dretel Lawrence praised his ability to engage others in discussion, and to welcome anyone and everyone, it wasn’t enough.
It was something past president Marc Wurgaft, whose father was a close friend of Alter Kriegel, had foreseen in 2011. At that time, he told NJJN that the biggest challenge was neither financial nor a dwindling membership. “It’s what we are going to do when Aaron retires.”
A portrait of the senior Rabbi Kriegel graces the wall in the central entry hall, and the intersection of Grove and Personette avenues bears a second name: Rabbi A. Kriegel Way.
A deal, approved May 1 by the Verona town council to buy the building for $1 million to become the new home of the Verona Rescue Squad, fell through weeks later after neighborhood residents filed a petition citing concerns about the noise, added traffic, and other issues.
The congregation’s five Torahs have already been distributed: two to B’nai Shalom, one to Rabbi Yaacov Leaf at Chabad of Montclair, one to Rabbi Shalom Lubin and his Congregation Shaya Ahavath Torah in Parsippany, and one to Rabbi Efraim Mintz of Brooklyn, who came to the synagogue regularly to teach.
After the congregation sang “Adon Olam” on June 3, the congregation concluded its last service with “Hatikvah” and“My Country ‘Tis of Thee” (also known as “America”) the latter a tradition that goes back to World War II, in honor of the members serving in the war. The elder Kriegel is said to have directed that the congregation would sing the song until every serviceman returned. But one member, Private Max Novick, was killed in action, so they maintained the custom of singing, right down to the very end.