The Merrick Jewish Centre has served the South Shore’s conservative population since 1929. And for 40 of those years, Rabbi Charles Klein has served as spiritual leader and friend to the synagogue’s membership.
In an interview last week, Klein, 67, called the Jewish Centre “an outlier in synagogue life on Long Island,” with memberships largely on the decline and the merging of temples becoming more common.
“Everybody is incredibly concerned about the trends that show people finding diminished importance in synagogue affiliation and religious involvement,” Klein said. “Religious life is very much on the defensive . . . There is a rapid and significant movement toward individualization, and away from communalization.”
At the Jewish Centre, however, membership remains strong, and even during difficult financial times, the synagogue’s leadership has not cut programming. Instead, Klein’s and the leadership’s approach has been to restructure, direct services where they are needed most and extend the hand of friendship even further — knowing that the good times would return.
“Our approach has always been that we would never permit the challenges that we face as a synagogue to be insurmountable,” Klein said. “We always brought enough of our communal strength and commitment to face the challenges that came our way.”
Klein traced much of the synagogue’s resiliency to the financial crisis of 2008 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
During the Great Recession, the synagogue was bleeding congregants. People lost their jobs, and many who kept theirs still could not afford the membership dues. Talk among the leadership first leaned toward cutting back on programs, Klein said.
“Our response was, we’re not going to retrench, and we’re not going to go on the defensive,” he said. “We’re going to do our best to help the people in our congregation who are facing difficulties to get through those difficulties.”
The synagogue went through a restructuring process; areas of the budget were cut that had no impact on services. The Jewish Centre’s Job Network was born, connecting job seekers with knowledgeable congregants and outside resources. The synagogue raised money for more direct aid, and offered free dentistry and tutors.
“When it was over, we came out stronger and better,” Klein said. “People were able to come to us, knowing we would try to help them in their Great Recession, and people respected it and found that their synagogue was a source of great strength during one of the hardest times in their life.”
When Sandy struck Merrick and Bellmore in October 2012, the Jewish Centre became a de facto social service center. Congregants opened their homes to those who lost theirs. The synagogue hosted clothing fairs and stockpiled canned goods. Two months after the storm hit, the Jewish Centre hosted a Hannukah concert to benefit victims.
Throughout both periods, the synagogue donated thousands of dollars in cash, goods and services to people who needed relief.
“Those two moments in time convinced people in our community that the synagogue would faithfully carry out what the synagogue was intended to stand for,” Klein said, “a place for all people to know that here they would find support, and love, and concern and compassion.”
The Jewish Centre’s challenges in 2018 are different, but Klein and other synagogue officials plan to meet them with the same approach.
“We’re exploring all different kinds of ways to bring Judaism into people’s lives — we have to contour it differently, and offer Judaism on a much more individualized basis,” he said. “We have to try to really send a message of Judaism’s importance and relevancy in a way that touches a new generation.”
Last year, Klein partnered with Rabbi Ron Brown, who until recently led Temple Beth Am, to create Synagogue Connect, a network that now spans all 50 states, with more than 750 synagogues opening their doors to college students looking to reconnect with their faith, or for a place to celebrate the High Holy Days.
The synagogue is also in the midst of a major capital endowment campaign, with a renovation in the offing, and an eye on future programs.
“We’re really very optimistic about the future of the Merrick Jewish Centre,” Klein said. “It really is an expression of our confidence that we will continue to be, for many years to come, an outlier in synagogue life in Long Island.”
Klein and his wife, Betty, also 67, will be honored at a gala at the synagogue on Oct. 28.
“I’m looking at this celebration as a celebration of the synagogue,” Betty said, “of what we, collectively, my husband, our congregants, the leadership, have been able to accomplish over 40 years. We’ve been able to weather the storms, to help people weather their personal storms.”
“We moved here when we were 27 years old,” she said. “Truly, it’s been a lifetime. And I can’t imagine any other life.”