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Beth El, Beth Israel to 'combine spiritual families'
August 31st, 2012
In September 1922, a group of 70 Milwaukee Jewish families created Congregation Beth El, the city’s first Conservative synagogue. This shul grew and by 1949 became known as Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue.
Bob Peterman and Nathaniel Sattler
During September 2012, almost exactly 90 years later, that synagogue will cease to exist in that form. But that does not mean it will be either gone completely or forgotten.
Rather, Beth El and Congregation Beth Israel will be “combining spiritual families” to form a new entity, Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid. That means the Milwaukee area will now have only one Conservative movement synagogue, located in Beth Israel’s building on Green Bay Ave. in Glendale.
The process was completed on Aug. 27, when a meeting of Beth Israel members, attended by about 110 people, voted unanimously to accept the agreement between the two synagogues and the change of name, according to Beth Israel president Nathaniel Sattler.
On Sunday, Sept. 9, in the morning, Beth Israel and Beth El have scheduled an event that will mark their joining together.
“We’ll carry the Torahs [from Beth El] in [to Beth Israel],” said Bob Peterman, president of Beth El. “There will be some kind of ceremony, which [Rabbi Jacob Herber of Beth Israel] will lead. Then both congregations will sit down and break bread.”
In an interview with Peterman and Sattler on Aug. 20 at Beth El’s building in Mequon, Peterman said that Beth El was more deeply affected than most local synagogues by what is happening generally in organized religion and in the Jewish community, declining membership.
Beth El has about 135 “membership units,” ranging from large families to singles. If one estimates the average “membership unit” as three people, that gives Beth El a membership of about 400 individuals.
At its peak membership year of 1962, when Beth El was located on Sherman Blvd. on Milwaukee’s west side, it had 1,030 membership units, according to the June 8, 1984, Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.
Peterman added that “the biggest factor in the Jewish community is the unaffiliated,” Jews who don’t belong to any synagogue, the proportion of which Peterman said has been estimated at 40 to 50 percent.
Peterman said that based on his conversations with past Beth El presidents, synagogue leaders had begun worrying about the consequences of these trends as long as “six or seven” years ago. Peterman became executive vice president during the last few years, and “I had a number of congregants ask me about the building and the cash flow,” he said.
Peterman two years ago asked “some very talented people” in the congregation — he mentioned Doug Fox particularly — to do a cash flow analysis. “And when I saw the results, it became painfully obvious that we had to make some major decisions,” Peterman said.
Peterman became Beth El president in June 2011. He said the synagogue’s board on Dec. 4 recommended to the full congregation that Beth El sell the building on Mequon Rd. that it has occupied since 1984.
The board explored three options: to build a smaller synagogue building; to lease space in the North Shore area; or to “combine our spiritual family with another synagogue,” Peterman said.
Sattler in June 2011 had become president of Beth Israel, which has about 380 membership units. He said he was aware of the possible developments at Beth El by autumn.
Sattler has a continuing personal interest in Beth El. He grew up and had his bar mitzvah ceremony there; and his grandparents are still members.
“I wanted at least to extend a hand and offer to have a further conversation about what we might do as partners,” Sattler said. “My initial conversations with Bob were about Conservative Judaism in Milwaukee and [its] importance… the history of Beth El and making sure that whatever happened, whether Beth Israel was a part of it or not, that Beth El wouldn’t be forgotten… I care a lot about this place and that it continue as a living entity, and that’s what we were striving to do.”
Beginning in January and continuing into spring, representatives of Beth El and Beth Israel had “general discussions, trying to lay out the vision” of “where we want to see Conservative Judaism go,” said Sattler. Beth El’s board also explored the option of combining with a Reform synagogue, Peterman said.
Ultimately, the Beth El board recommended joining with Beth Israel; and the discussion teams from the two synagogues “had a pretty good idea in May or June of what the agreement would look like in spirit,” said Sattler.
Beth Israel members at the synagogue’s annual meeting on June 11 unanimously approved a resolution “that the membership of Congregation Beth Israel… supports the effort to join the spiritual families of CBI and BENT together” (text provided by Sattler).
“Then over the summer, we negotiated the actual terms, how we would execute the agreement,” Sattler said. Moreover, Sattler said that Beth Israel held what Peterman called “meet and greet” events for Beth El people.
“I’ve spent a lot of time at Beth El and I knew how hard this decision was,” said Sattler. “We wanted to make sure that everybody had a chance to become comfortable with the idea that Beth El would continue as part of Beth Israel.”
On Aug. 19, a special meeting of Beth El synagogue members, attended by about 125 people. Peterman said that 112 people voted for the agreement with Beth Israel, six voted against it, and the rest abstained.
In addition to changing the name of the combined synagogues, the agreement calls for:
• Beth Israel to change its enabling documents and bylaws to reflect the new name.
• Beth El members to come into Beth Israel as “continuing members, not first year members,” said Sattler, “so they’re coming in with all the normal rights of full members,” including to become officers and board members.
• Beth El to present a gift Beth Israel of a Beth El Endowment Fund, which will be owned by the new CBINT. The amount of money involved here is “substantial,” said Peterman.
“We have an offer on the building of $2 million cash,” he said, and the “potential buyer” is Dr. Lewis Chamoy. Moreover, the synagogue owns three other properties: A parsonage (house for the rabbi), four acres of land near the parking lot, and a Beth El Ner Tamid Housing for the Elderly (BENTHE) project located on Port Washington Rd. that was created 25 years ago in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The intent is that proceeds from the sale of all these will go into this endowment. A board of seven members, five appointed by Peterman, two by Sattler, will govern the endowment.
Of those properties, the BENTHE sale will be closed “very shortly,” and the proceeds will eliminate most of the synagogue’s debt, said Peterman. The parsonage has been listed for sale; but sale of the four acres has not yet been officially discussed, Peterman said.
Negotiations are continuing for the purchase of the synagogue building. In a telephone conversation, Patricia Chamoy, Dr. Chamoy’s wife and a former Beth El president, said the Chamoys did not want to comment on the matter for that reason. Peterman said that “the potential closing date of the sale” is February 2013.
Ultimately, “The endowment is going to help us meet our goals, to strengthen Conservative Judaism and to ensure that there will be a permanent display of Beth El artifacts and plaques,” Peterman said.
Sattler added that the space at the Beth Israel building will have to be reconfigured to accommodate this.
“We’re going to make sure to do everything we can to make sure that the memory of Beth El is living in the halls of Beth Israel Ner Tamid,” Sattler said. The details are yet to be determined, he added.
Most of this is intended to be in place by the coming High Holidays, Sattler and Peterman said. Peterman said they do yet know exactly how many Beth El members will join the new CBINT.
The Beth El building, however, will continue to be in use for a while. It houses two tenants, Reconstructionist Congregation Shir Hadash and a branch of the Gan Ami Beginnings, Preschool, and Kindergarten of the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center.
“We will provide accommodations to make sure there is some type of coverage” for them, Peterman said. “We have an obligation to our tenants.”
Meanwhile, Peterman and Sattler said, members of Beth El and Beth Israel are moving the transition process along.
Peterman said the shuls’ men’s clubs and sisterhoods have begun integrating. Sattler said that many Beth El members showed up at the Beth Israel picnic on Aug. 20 and began to mingle with the members.
Above all, Peterman, Sattler, and Beth Israel’s Rabbi Jacob Herber believe the creation of this new entity will strengthen Conservative Judaism in Milwaukee.
“Bringing together the legacy of two important congregations in our community … will insure that the Conservative movement in Milwaukee will not only be stronger, but will have a very bright future,” said Herber in a telephone conversation on Aug. 21.
Moreover, he added, “I’m a big believer in pluralism within the community. I think it is important for all streams of Judaism to be strong and well represented in the community. The fact that Conservative Judaism will continue to play a vital role in the great Jewish community of Milwaukee I think is something that will benefit all.”