A Dying Shul: Last Gasp or Comeback?
Far Rockaway's famed "White Shul," Congregation Kneseth Israel, is conducting a "serious negotiation" with Touro College to establish a local campus of The Lander College for Women on the shul's property, Touro founder and president Dr. Bernard Lander has confirmed. He called the potential dual use of the property "a historic achievement in an historic synagogue."Sources tell me that there were rumors swirling for weeks that the shul had been sold in its entirety to Touro, until a letter was sent out to White Shul members denying that rumor, but informing members that the shul is in negotiations to consider selling a part of the shul. The letter apparently also took pains to note that any plan would be required to go before an election held for all shul members before it would be approved.
Anyone who knew anything about the Far Rockaway neighborhood some decades ago knew that the White Shul was THE place to be if you were spending Shabbos in the Five Towns/Far Rockaway area. The place was always packed to the gills on Shabbos after davening, with young folk populating the lobby and spilling onto the driveway.
Well, sadly, that isn't really the case any more. Though there are shuls within a few blocks of the White Shul that are thriving and teeming with people on any given Shabbos, the White Shul seems to have become less and less popular of a place to daven as years go on. It seems to have found it's niche as a so-called "minyan factory", catering to community members looking to find a minyan around the clock, whether they are shul members or not. But on Shabbos, the shul is operating at much less than its capacity, and though the Orthodox community has grown exponentially in the area, the White Shul is far emptier these days than it was in its heyday.
Sources who attend the shul tell me that the current membership is extremely unhappy with the shul's status a "minyan factory", and are extremely resentful of what some view as the rightward shift in the neighborhood demographic that has sent the community's young married set to other shuls in droves. Shuls that have tables and chairs, not pews, like the White Shul. The White Shul's longtime regulars feel that it is unfair for community members to utilize the shul's resources when they need to grab a convenient minyan, or when they need a shul to affiliate with when their kids need a little league team (apparently, the shteebles and more "yeshivish" shuls do not participate in little league), but feel no such sense of responsibility when it comes to choosing a shul to daven in on Shabbos, or when it comes to paying membership dues. They feel that a community has a responsibility to fill an existing, venerable old shul, before they start new ones many times over.
I have mixed feelings about the circumstances that brought the White Shul to this juncture. I think that community members should be allowed to daven wherever they wish, and choose a shul based on where they feel they and their family members would be most comfortable. I also feel that their right to do so trumps their responsibility (if there even exists such a responsibility) to maintain a dying community shul. There is no basis to force people to daven in a shul simply because it's half-empty, and because it used to be a community institution. Still and all, it's sad to see the changing tastes of a community's residents cause a shul that was once a center for yiddishkeit to lie more and more fallow.
In any event, the locals' dying interest in davening in the White Shul, a huge building on a large property that probably costs a pretty penny to maintain, has apparently left the shul in need of a desperate infusion of cash. And I guess Dr. Lander of Touro College is just the sugar daddy it needs.
But what is the White Shul looking to achieve with this deal? Are they hoping the cash will be just the shot in the arm they need to rebound? Or are they looking to subsidize the cost of a smaller congregation as part of a college campus? Anyone have any ideas?