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Their Last Shabbat
Members of Beit Kodesh in Livonia will miss their tight-knit congregation.
For members of Congregation Beit Kodesh in Livonia, this Shabbat will be the last they spend in the building that has been their home since 1971 — and home to the only Conservative synagogue in western Wayne County.
Beit Kodesh congregation formed 53 years ago, and its closure this week has much to do with an aging membership and few young families able to take over leadership responsibilities.
The synagogue’s last day is Oct. 29, the day its lease ends on the building on West Seven Mile Road, just west of Merriman. The former United Hebrew Schools Molly and Samuel Cohn Building is owned by the United Jewish Foundation and is now for sale.
The congregation’s history started in 1958, when a group of families new to Livonia started holding Shabbat services, first in members’ homes and then at Clarenceville Central Elementary School. About 200 people gathered for the first High Holiday services. In 1959, the Livonia Jewish Congregation was officially organized; and, in 1990, the name was changed to Beit Kodesh (House of Holiness).
Over the years, the congregation has held services in several locations including a farmhouse, a tent and a church.
“We have opened and closed many doors, but what’s most important is the people,” said Phyllis Lewkowicz of Livonia, a founding member who served twice as president and currently heads the Sisterhood.
As recently as the early 1990s, Beit Kodesh was a flourishing 90- to 100- family congregation with an active sisterhood and men’s club, a thriving Sunday school and standing-room-only High Holiday services.
But, with fewer Jewish families living in Livonia and the departure of their rabbi in the late 1990s, the Conservative congregation now is down to 45 families and no clergy. Knowledgeable members have been leading services.
Notably, this progressive, egalitarian congregation became the first Conservative synagogue in Metro Detroit to elect a woman president.
Volunteerism was another Beit Kodesh hallmark. The close-knit members helped one another like family and also reached out to help others at places like food banks, Friendship Circle and a Livonia women’s shelter.
In 2005, Beit Kodesh hired Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller as its temporary rabbinic adviser.
“The fact that this small congregation managed to keep its doors open as long as it did is a success story,” said Miller of Farmington Hills. “When they contacted me, they were already fearing that they would have to close. That they eked out another five years makes them ‘The Little Shul that Could.’
Lewkowicz says she and many members call Beit Kodesh the “House of Miracles” because they’ve managed to remain open.
“These days it’s not unusual for small Conservative synagogues to either close or merge with other congregations,” Miller said. “The national trend is a response to the growth of Conservative synagogues during the expansion years and today’s difficult economic conditions.
“For a dwindling Conservative Jewish population here in Metro Detroit, there are too many congregations and they can’t support themselves as their membership rolls decline.”
Many of Beit Kodesh’s 45 member families will join Congregation B’nai Moshe in West Bloomfield, which has a similar family feel among its members. However, because of the distance, some older members may not be able to attend services often.
In exchange for membership, Beit Kodesh will give B’nai Moshe its assets, including its Torahs.
“The assets are nice, but I’m excited about the people joining us who feel a fit with our heimish [warm] congregation,” said Daniel Sperling, B’nai Moshe president. “I look forward to having them join us on Shabbat, holidays and at minyans.”
“It’s bittersweet,” Lewkowicz said. “It’s sad to leave, but I’m a very rational person. I know it was time. I think it will be a good thing.”
But that doesn’t mean Beit Kodesh won’t be missed in Livonia.
“The for sale sign has been out, and I was cleaning up after a bar mitzvah,” Lewkowicz recalled. “A young man stopped and asked why the sign was up. When I told him we were closing, he said, ‘You can’t.’
“He was pastor of the church down the street. He said the whole continuity of Livonia will change when we go. He offered to let us hold services in his church and to do a fundraiser for us. With tears in his eyes, he told me, ‘You will be so missed.’
“You never know for sure that people recognize who you are and what you are,” Lewkowicz said. “To have someone come up to you like that was very meaningful.”
By Keri Guten Cohen| Story Development Editor. Contributing Writer Shelli Liebman Dorfman also contributed to this story.