Mike Tilson, an Army veteran and former policeman in Albany, Ga., has a “strategic planning background which allows me to see the big picture.” As president of Temple B’Nai Israel, that’s a useful skill set. The more than 100-year-old congregation had as many as 150 member units in 1962. Today, there are 39 family units, Tilson said. And with the death of three old-timers last year, “our ability to rebuild is challenging.”
That led Tilson to surf the internet earlier this year, looking for information to help him write a policy for the struggling congregation. “I stumbled on an article about the Jewish Community Legacy Project, and being a curious kind of guy, I did a search and said, ‘Wow, these folks might be able to help us sustain ourselves.’ Our focus is sustainment if we can.”
In April, Temple B’Nai Israel signed a letter of engagement with the Atlanta-based JCLP. “Noah Levine [of JCLP] has already brought us many ideas to help us sustain ourselves, but we’re still at the beginning stages,” Tilson told the AJT. “We’re going to have to do something different in order to sustain, but we must be realistic and plan in the event of us having to close.”
Questions that the congregation must ask itself include: “What does it mean for us to be a congregation and what would it take for us to close? Is it just reducing expenses and, if so, how? Or, if we must do more fundraising, how would we do that?”
These are not simple questions for a Jewish community that started in the 1840s with a handful of Jewish immigrants. A small synagogue was built in 1882, followed by a larger one 14 years later. By the 1930s, Jewish retail business flourished downtown. But a tornado in February 1940 destroyed the businesses and the synagogue, forcing the congregation to rebuild once again. The Jewish population mushroomed in the 1950s and 1960s, topping out at about 525 in 1968.
But as with many Jewish communities in small towns, lack of economic opportunities forced the younger generations to move away, weakening the ability to sustain thriving congregations.
That’s where JCLP enters the picture. Launched a few years ago by former head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta David Sarnat, JCLP assists small Jewish communities in preparing for whatever future awaits them and helps ensure that their legacies reflect the aspects of Jewish life that were important to them.
Of 80 congregations that JCLP has worked with so far, 19 have closed their doors, while 14 have a legacy plan in place but remain open, and another 47 have plans in progress but also remain open. JCLP is in preliminary discussions with another 22 synagogues in small towns.
The president of Congregation Emanuel in Statesville, N.C., Beverly Maurice, views the legacy plan her congregation created with JCLP’s help as a “form of life insurance for the synagogue. We’re not expecting to close in the near future, but it’s like life or health insurance; you hope you never need it.” Statesville native and fellow congregant Wendy (Gordon) Pike pointed out that Congregation Emanuel has experienced rebirths before and hopes to again.
And that’s always the hope for congregations that work with either Sarnat or Levine. That hope extends way beyond current and active members of congregations in small towns. “I think it’s a really good idea to work with JCLP,” said Barbi Fisher, vice president of B’Nai Israel. In 1995, the Temple sold its building to a bank and built a new synagogue on stunning wooded acres in 1999. “We have beautiful stained-glass windows. We don’t want the Temple to close; we just need helpful hints on how to maintain it,” said Fisher, who has lived her entire life in Albany.
Many Jews from Albany can retrace their family’s history back to great-grandparents who moved to the southwest Georgia town. Even more point out the close relationship with Atlanta. The connections are strong whether they were born in Atlanta, like Janie Bitterman, who then moved to Albany in 1973, or Fisher, whose three sons now live in Atlanta, or Marsha Mathis in Roswell, whose siblings live in Albany, or Helene Kraselsky, who just moved to Cumming from Albany.
And those connections remain strong in the younger generations. Brian Fink, who lives in Alpharetta, still vacations with friends he made in the Reform youth group, NFTY, when he was growing up in Albany. “I still go home for the High Holidays,” he reports, referring to Albany.
For some born in Albany, the possibility that the Temple could close is a devastating thought. “In my heart, I don’t see it able to survive,” said Debbie Mulford, a member of Temple Beth Tikvah in Roswell. “It’s a scary thought.”
But Tilson hasn’t given up. In April, he attended a meeting that the Union for Reform Judaism held for new congregational presidents in Peachtree City. “I learned a lot and talked to those who have walked in our shoes. I was quite pleased to talk to people who have already worked with JCLP. It was perfectly timed for us as we are trying to figure out how to continue. We’re trying to hang on. For me, it was an excellent experience and will help our Temple in the long run.”
JCLP’s chair, Michael Z. Kaye, did not grow up in a small town himself, but “it’s always been intriguing to me.” He points out that three of JCLP’s board members were initially clients. They include Sam Bernstine, whose congregation in New Castle, Pa., has since closed, Marcia Storch of Olean, N.Y., whose congregation is still open, and Ann Tettlebaum of Jefferson City, Mo., whose congregation also remains open. “These are voices of people who went through [the process] firsthand.”
When JCLP was first launched, some congregations were hesitant to work with the organization. “But we say that this doesn’t mean you’re going to turn the lights off,” Kaye said.
And that’s certainly what Tilson and other Jews in Albany are hoping.