Filling the Gap
Beth Shalom rents, gives space to help groups stay afloat after JCC’s closure.
Barbara Lewis Contributing Writer
Congregation Beth Shalom has become a de facto community hub since the Jewish Community Center closed its Oak Park branch in 2015.
Detroit Chesed Project’s The Spot program (“The spot for special children”) has been at Beth Shalom for more than two years. The program provides respite services for families with special-needs children from 3-7 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, using several classrooms in the synagogue’s school wing.
The JCC’s Institute for Retired Professionals (IRP) knew it would lose many participants from southern Oakland County if it relocated its Oak Park activities to the main center in West Bloomfield. IRP rents space from Beth Shalom for a variety of discussion groups and speaker events. In return, Beth Shalom members can attend programs usually open only to IRP members.
“The Jewish Community Center is thrilled to collaborate with community partners such as Beth Shalom to fulfill our mission to build a dynamic Jewish community,” said Heidi Budaj, JCC assistant executive director, noting that the JCC partners with many other community organizations as well.
The Farber Adult Art Class set up a studio in a room formerly used by Beth Shalom’s nursery school. Harriet Gelfond has run the program for more than 50 years, starting when the JCC was in Northwest Detroit. It relocated to Oak Park when the main center moved to West Bloomfield in 1976. The studio is open from 9-11:30 a.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and charges $60 for 10 classes, including all supplies.
Gelfond says she now has 20 students, more than she had at the JCC. “Beth Shalom has been wonderful to us,” she said.
Down the hall from the art studio is the Beis Chaya Mushka Girls High School run by Chabad/Lubavitch, which relocated to Beth Shalom in 2014. The school, with 58 students, rents eight classrooms, the library and the youth lounge on weekdays.
“We have been very happy with our arrangement with Beth Shalom and think it’s a great space,” said Bayla Blumstein, school principal.
A knitting group that formerly met at the Oak Park JCC moved to Beth Shalom when the center closed. It’s a small drop-in group of people who like company while they work on their personal projects, said Liz Kannon of Ferndale, a longtime participant. One individual makes lap quilts for cancer patients; others knit hats for American and Israeli soldiers. The group meets Monday evenings from 7-9 p.m. and new members are welcome.
Kannon said they are happy although they miss the social connection with non-knitters who would stop in to schmooze as they went to or from other activities at the JCC. The congregation doesn’t charge them because the building is open for other activities and “all we need is a table and some chairs,” Kannon said.
One of those other Monday activities is the biweekly board meetings of the Ideal Detroit Loan Corporation, a savings and loan society established by local tradesmen in the 1920s (Go to djnfoundation.org for an archived story on Ideal, Nov. 12, 2015). The group previously met at the JCC.
Since last summer, Kehillat Etz Chaim, a new Modern Orthodox congregation, has been renting space to hold Sabbath and holiday services in Beth Shalom’s chapel.
Several community organizations use Beth Shalom for annual events, including the Bel Canto choir, which holds its spring concert there, and the Tri-Community Coalition, which is dedicated to substance abuse prevention and mental health wellness in Oak Park, Huntington Woods and Berkley. For the past several years, the coalition has held its annual Dialogue Day for teens at Beth Shalom.
“Beth Shalom has been exceedingly generous,” said Judy Rubin, the coalition’s executive director. “We love the venue and hope to continue using it for many years to come.”
Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Robert Gamer said he and other congregation leaders suggested using the building when news broke about the closure of the JCC.
“We are happy to have the building more utilized and also happy that these groups, which may have folded, continue to exist,” he said. “We do charge nominal fees to cover our costs, but it’s much less than renting commercial real estate.”
Congregation President Gretchen Weiner said Beth Shalom has always placed a high value on community. “We are blessed to be able to accommodate a variety of groups and activities to promote continuity and stability in our local Jewish community,” she said.
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