First person: Racine synagogue shutters and makes a fresh start

Here’s a situation from a Chicago Jew now living in Racine, Wisconsin. Who? Well, a former owner of Bob’s Newsstands, a kosher delicatessen, three bookstores and back-issue magazine stores which featured periodicals on Jewish history going back 100 years. Being Jewish matters regardless of how the deck has always been stacked.

After being persuaded to move to Racine in June 2015 by one of the few remaining members of Beth Israel Sinai on Main and 9th streets, and since my wife of 41 years and I didn’t want to be the only Jews in Wisconsin among five million German Lutherans, I felt that we were becoming part of something we cared about: the last synagogue in Racine. We decided we would become members and try to keep the old place going. But the day after I helped build a sukkah there and a violent wind storm destroyed it, I felt the tremor that perhaps that was a sign too strong to ignore.

The building housing congregation Beth Israel Sinai near downtown Racine since 1953 has been sold. Photos by Mark Hertzberg.

The building housing congregation Beth Israel Sinai near downtown Racine since 1953 has been sold. Here, part of the old building is dismantled. Photos by Mark Hertzberg.

The temple’s membership continued to decline and it was nearly impossible to assemble a minyan of 10 on a Saturday morning. At 66, we two were the new kids on the block. Our steadfast rabbi from faraway Morton Grove, Illinois, Martyn Adelberg, an urbane and caring person, kept the services going; but it was like sitting shiva on the tilted deck of the Titanic. In November 2016, a church bought the building after it was concluded by a succession of boards that the costs of keeping the old temple going were unsustainable.

A new more concise location at 3009 Washington Ave. was found to be affordable and an offer was made to buy it, which was accepted. The real estate transaction was closed on Monday, Dec. 19, 2016. Beth Israel Sinai lives!

Now we need new blood, teachers and students from nearby universities, invisible Jews who live near Racine but are uninvolved in the Jewish community, perhaps Christians and others who want to support something culturally important to their town. Fresh thinking and a more liberal attitude could save Beth Israel Sinai from oblivion. The new structure is to also have a small museum of the older temple’s history within it and open to the public.

Rabbi Martyn Adelberg said the congregation is not closing, but has moved to 3009 Washington Ave. in Racine, where it has started anew. About 15 people attended a recent Shabbat service there, he said. Photos by Mark Hertzberg.

Rabbi Martyn Adelberg said the congregation is not closing, but has moved to 3009 Washington Ave. in Racine, where it has started anew. About 15 people attended a recent Shabbat service there, he said. Photos by Mark Hertzberg.

We are a minuscule and ancient Biblical people still walking the earth, coming from a small faraway desert to what may possibly become a much bigger desert the way the current inhabitants are treating the planet. We invite interested people to become members – or I do, I guess – and help keep something important continuing to exist.

There is an old movie theater marquee projecting out of a building neighboring our new petite synagogue. Currently dark and wordless, it would be kinda cool to drive past a lit up marquee informing the thousands that drive by every day:

Now appearing next to us … Jews!

Robert Katzman is a member of the board for Beth Israel Sinai Congregation of Racine.

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See photo slideshow on the synagogue and its new home at Facebook.com/WisconsinJewish