COMMACK, New York — Two months ago, I returned to my childhood synagogue for the first time in a decade. The former Commack Jewish Center was sold to Christian televangelists last year, and I was curious to sample the gestalt of their new Church Unleashed, which opened in March.
After driving up that familiar steep hill, I was struck by the overtly welcoming vibe. Parking lot spaces were reserved for first-timers, and a team of greeters stood outside the building with welcome signs. In the lobby, the words “Welcome Home” were posted above the sanctuary’s wooden doors, now painted grey, above where the Torah rescued from the Holocaust had been. A newcomer table offered a free book by Joel Osteen, the televangelist mega-star with whom Church Unleashed is affiliated.
Evading several greeters, I poked around the building before the Sunday service.
In Mrs. Stein’s old fourth grade Hebrew school classroom, where I first learned about Israel, the church had set up its broadcast studio. The reception hall in which I had my Bar Mitzvah party was much the same, although the white carpeting was gone from the walls, along with the Bingo board.
Tell-tale signs that Church Unleashed was in the middle of a makeover were present, such as markings where mezuzah holders had been, and the sign on a bathroom door asking men to remove their prayer shawls before entering.
In the sanctuary, where I became a bar mitzvah in 1991, everything Jewish had been removed — the yahrzeit memorial plaques, the two large decorative menorahs, and the names of the tribes of Israel in Hebrew letters atop the wooden parapet. Even the blue-cushioned pews were gone — the ones that all four of my grandparents, now deceased, once sat in, and where I learned to sing several versions of the prayer Adon Olam (Lord of the Universe).
Where the Eternal Light once glowed orange, a large screen played music videos and commercials for the church. The Holy Ark with its golden pillars of fire and clouds was gone, and a drummer performed in the crevice where Torahs once rested. About 150 people were there, including blacks, Asians, and Latinos. I heard a woman in the pews say she was sitting shiva, and I wondered how many other Jews were in that dim space with me.
‘A self-imposed demographic implosion’
For 31 years, rabbi William Berman led our Commack Jewish Center (CJC), presiding over both its heyday and the beginning of the end. Nine years ago, in an interview with Jewish Week, he predicted the future of both CJC and — some say — Jewish life on Long Island.
Warning that Jews were increasingly intermarrying and having fewer children, the rabbi repeated what I remember being a frequent theme of his sermons — the “self-imposed demographic implosion” taking place among Conservative Jews.
“You can talk of programming and creativity, but [not] if you don’t have the people,” said Berman. “The dearth of birth is so critical, so dramatic, that we can’t keep silent,” he said, adding that Hebrew school participation was down by two-thirds since the early-90s, when I was a student at CJC.
‘The dearth of birth is so critical, so dramatic, that we can’t keep silent’
Three years after this interview, Berman retired from the pulpit. CJC sputtered along until 2014, during which time Long Island continued to lose synagogues, kosher butchers, and Judaica stores. Only one-third of the region’s 300,000 Jews belong to synagogues, of which there are 20 fewer since 2006.
According to Rabbi Steven Wernick, head of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Jewish community’s long-time passion for erecting buildings has been a mixed blessing, as evidenced by a decade of synagogue closures across Long Island.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Wernick pointed to his movement’s 2011 “paradigm shift,” in which “people are the new focus, instead of buildings,” he said.
“What does it mean to save a synagogue?” said Wernick. “To save the building, or to save the values that make that community unique? Will those values disappear? Probably not,” he said.
‘He passed away with the synagogue’
Fifty years after he helped inaugurate Commack Jewish Center’s building, George Koff and his beloved congregation departed from life within weeks of each other.
A World War II veteran, Koff lived to see his grandchildren become adults in the shul (synagogue) he helped establish with his wife, Evelyn, and eight other couples who decided to form a Conservative congregation 55 years ago. The group operated out of a split-level house for several years, until the permanent synagogue — a commanding, beige edifice atop a hill on leafy Shirley Court — went up in 1964.
My twin brother Daniel and I grew up with Koff’s granddaughter, Mandi Kirschman. The three of us attended Junior Congregation religiously and participated in the Mitzvah Corps. Knowing that Kirschman’s grandparents were heavily involved in founding CJC, I called her up to discuss the recent closing.
“My grandfather worked so many years to keep the shul going and he wore so many hats,” said Kirschman, who, like me, grew up within walking distance of CJC (she was Mandi Weber then).
I remember Kirschman’s grandfather from my childhood, stoic-looking and seemingly on permanent usher duty. As new generations of CJC leaders came and went, Koff remained a commanding presence, the kind of leader who sat on the bimah during High Holidays.
According to Kirschman, the inability of CJC to “keep up with the times” was one factor in the synagogue’s decline.
“It took a long time for CJC to become egalitarian and recognize women as part of the minyan [prayer quorum],” she said.
“There was no new blood or outreach, and the leaders were less and less involved with the Conservative movement,” said Kirschman. “There were new and exciting things happening close by, at the Dix Hills Jewish Center, for instance, but people were not interested in looking into that,” she said, referring to the synagogue into which CJC merged.
Until he was too ill to attend, Kirschman’s grandfather participated in services at the synagogue. Koff’s death at age 89 came a few weeks after High Holiday services were held at CJC for the last time, exactly half a century after he helped lay the building’s cornerstone.
“When he passed away, it was hard to get a minyan every night [for shiva],” said Kirschman. “They had to count women. And that was when I knew it was over. He passed away with the synagogue,” she said.
Postscript: ‘Welcome Home’
At the end of the music-filled service at Church Unleashed, Pastor Todd Bishop washed the feet of two men — a white former New York City police officer and a black congregant — in the context of his sermon about the summer’s violence in US cities.
The men sat in the center of the bimah, exactly where I read from the Torah portion Tsav in 1991, and where I sang off-key in numerous holiday plays put on by our jovial, white-haired Cantor Leon Wolk. The pastor knelt at their feet and spoke about ending our corrosive culture of stereotypes and hate. I thought of Pope Francis and photos I have seen of him washing the feet of people around the world.
It might not be “Jewish,” I thought to myself, but here is that same commandment to pursue holiness in each other. It is being enacted in the same consecrated space I grew up in, a space that was not turned into a landfill or a Target or a parking lot, but remains home to a faith community I can identify with.
As I left the building, the pastor shook my hand.
“It’s an honor for us you came,” he said — as if knowing why I was there, and what I hoped to find.
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