LOWER MAKEFIELD >> Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy of Congregation Kol Emet said the fact that Bristol Jewish Center (BJC) has merged recently with Kol Emet means her synagogue will be open to new ideas and challenges.
BJC is the oldest Jewish congregation in Bucks County, dating back more than a century.
The merger with Kol Emet occurred in September.
“We paid dues and became members,” said Alan Vogenberg, 85, who served as treasurer for BJC for 15 years. “It was as simple as that.
“It was time,” he said of the merger. “We had been there 111 years. The congregation was growing older.
‘We reached a point where attendance was way down,” he said. “Financially, we were OK, but people weren’t there. We had student rabbis. It wasn’t fair to them to have half a dozen people who attend service.”
Kol Emet currently has 200 families in the congregation, while the Bristol Jewish Center has 25 families.
“We decided to merge with Kol Emet, which is Reconstructionist,” Vogenberg said. “It was a natural thing to do.”
Kol Emet has been warm and welcoming, he said.
“They’re doing a lot,” he said. “They have kids. They have more going on to engage the congregation that we didn’t do because we’re an adult congregation. When you have children involved, it makes it much more lively and social as well.”
Randi Davis, president of Congregation Kol Emet, said, “We are very excited to welcome approximately two dozen couples and individuals as our new members.
“They bring with them a rich cultural and spiritual heritage,” she said. “Kol Emet is excited to use their talents to enrich our programming.”
In addition to the new members, BJC brings some historical and treasured artifacts to Kol Emet, including two Torahs with adornments, a tapestry, artwork and a large outdoor menorah.
BJC began in 1904 in the back of a tailor shop on Mill Street in Bristol. After World War II, it grew into a larger all-inclusive congregation with a building on Pond Street that contains a historical library and a more-than-100-seat sanctuary.
A building was purchased on Pond Street in 1917. The congregation stayed there until 1948 and built on donated land that belonged to five Jewish families.
“The new building was more modern and up to date,” Vogenberg said. “We maintained that since 1948. It was never that large with maybe 100 families.”
As the Jewish population of Bristol aged, the congregation found itself, like so many places of worship, with a shrinking number of participating members. It began to look for another place for its spiritual home.
BJC was a major part of Vogenberg’s life.
“I did just about everything at the center,” he said. “I was caretaker. I took care of any problems people had — I did it.”
He also hired student rabbis and helped during religious services along with the rabbis.
“I did everything,” Vogenberg said. “I promoted the congregation, made the ads to get new members. I did the weekly newsletters before computers were widely used.”
He remembered the day when there were 16 active Jewish synagogues in Bucks County. Temple Shalom merged with Shir Ami in Newtown, and now BJC has merged with Kol Emet.
“Now, there’s 14,” he said.
“There are only three Jewish families in Bristol Borough. Sixty families came from all around the county — mostly from Lower Bucks.”
Vogenberg said he feels “sad and disappointed. There’s a large void in our lives.”
“I had been so deeply involved for so many years … Kol Emet has their leadership,” he said. “It’s important that I step back and let them run their synagogue. We are just joining them and supporting them so we can continue their mission.”
Rabbi Boswell-Levy said she looks forward to the diversity that will be created with the new congregants.
“Compared to them we are newer,” she said. “We’ve been around for a quarter of a century. They’ve been around for over a century. There are differences between Kol Emet and the Bristol Jewish Center, but they are an older community and we have a lot of young families, which is not a conflict. For us, it’s really a complement in that we really seek to have people of all age ranges and different personalities in our congregation.
“We really look forward to being even more diverse,” she said. “It’s not about absorbing them and carrying on just as we were. We’re looking at revisiting our level of services. I try to have something for everyone at services so people can find a bit of themselves within a service.”
Boswell-Levy said she looks at the merger as a positive challenge and a ray of light.
“I’m looking forward to getting to know each of them individually,” she said about the new congregants.
“Each member has their individual history,” Boswell-Levy said. “I know there are some people who are new and some who have been there a long time. I look forward to really meeting with the people who have joined as a group — what do they want to see? What are they interested in? What are their concerns? What questions do they have?”
She said Kol Emet is a “full-service congregation, but I’m looking forward to what we can do differently.”