These can be challenging times for synagogues, and Congregation Mishkan Tefila (CMT) in Newton is among those which are facing the stark realities of a shrinking community. Nevertheless, President Paul Gershkowitz sounds surprisingly upbeat as CMT prepares to sell its property in Newton and move into Brookline. “We have a future. We are going to be a part of the future of Judaism. That’s an exciting thing!”
It’s a story that you’ve likely heard many times in Greater Boston and on the North Shore in recent decades – synagogues facing plummeting memberships merging in order to create an entity strong enough to last beyond the next few years. But this time the story features a congregation with a very large and very valuable piece of land – and the story features a surprising twist.
When CMT sells its 24-acre property to Boston College, it will be working from a position of strength. With $20 million in hand from the sale, the plan is to move in and share the facility – and some efficiencies – with Kehillath Israel (KI) in Brookline. “We wanted to figure out, as a leadership group,” said Gershkowitz, “what was the best path for Mishkan Tefila moving forward.”
The best path, they decided, was not to marry another congregation, but instead to move in together. This variation on the traditional merger approach is one they feel will make them agile and able to flourish over the long term. “One of the things we’re trying to find out is how do we engage younger people and make them feel wanted and accepted within our community.”
Sure, everyone wants to engage millenials, but millenials have their own ideas about which of their parents’ traditions they choose to embrace. So Gershkowitz and CMT have an intriguing idea about changing their relationship to congregants. In fact, as they join a multi-faceted religious community with KI, they envision a free-flowing “campus” where people can come and go based on their interest in specific events, rather than be locked into a membership. “This idea of the campus is such an exciting thing,” explains Gershkowitz. “Generally, a temple is a place that’s almost like a castle with walls built around it. The idea of a campus is to break down the walls and to make it so that many people can come into our institution and enjoy religion with us. They may not necessarily have to be one of our congregants.”
Gershkowitz explains the decision as a choice between a tactical move – selling the property and moving elsewhere in Newton – or a strategic one – reconfiguring their business model and switching, hopefully, to a sustainable business model over the long-term. “If we’d done nothing, we would have been forced to close in a year or two,” he said.
But Newton is a saturated market, said Gershkowitz, and he felt the synagogue needed to be reinvented, not just relocated to a more appropriately sized facility after shrinking from 1,000 families to about 200 over the past four decades. He likes their chances better in an urban environment, “even if we lose some families with the transition,” he said.
Ten years ago, Temple Israel and Temple Beth El combined to create Congregation Shirat Hayam (CSH) in Swampscott in what is viewed as a great success. Dr. Howard Abrams, president of CSH, agrees with the notion that a change such as the one being made by CMT should include a reassessment of the business model. “You have to go back to the drawing board and start from scratch, not just combine two entities, but start something new,” says Abrams.
While some might assume that the cohabitation is a step down the road to an eventual marriage, Gershkowitz says firmly that a merger is not in the cards. “We are going to the campus because we have unique qualities and attributes that we bring to this campus that will help it grow over time. This is a long-term plan.”
This is not the first time that CMT has moved, says Gershkowitz, hoping to offer a broader view of the situation to outsiders. “Our congregation started in 1858 and, as a matter of perspective, that was pre-Civil War. The congregation has moved a number of times.” In other words, while there are risks involved, failure to change is sometimes more dangerous than embracing change.
Again, Abrams suggests that CMT is on the right path. “You have to find a way to get people to view you differently and not just assume that they’re going to keep coming, because they won’t.”