Updated: Danville Jewish congregation to close building
UPDATED 7:15 p.m. Wednesday.
DANVILLE — The city's oldest Jewish congregation is coming full circle as its members prepare to close the doors to its synagogue later this month and continue meeting in the room of a local business as its original members did in the early 1900s.
With fewer than 25 members, the congregation is no longer able to support its building at 14 E. Ridgeview St. in north Danville, and has made the decision to close after 96 years serving the orthodox and conservative Jewish residents in Danville.
"It's painful. It's very painful to do this," said Neal Ehrlich, who's been the president of the congregation for more than 30 years and was at the building Wednesday afternoon with Sybil Mervis, another longtime member of the congregation.
"This is so beautiful," Mervis said, referring to the building that features symbolic stained-glass windows, each one donated by a family in the congregation and each one representing a Jewish holiday. "And we are going to give it up. Because we have to."
On Sept. 20, 1915, the Congregation Anshe Knesset Israel incorporated in Danville as a Conservative Jewish congregation, whose original members were Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. They began meeting above the shop of a Jewish business owner in the early 1900s.
In the latter half of the 1800s, Jewish immigrants were opening shops in downtown Danville, and by the turn of the century, several Jewish businessmen had stores in the area of Main, Hazel and Vermilion streets.
The first Jewish congregation in Danville, Temple Beth El, officially organized on Oct. 12, 1902, as the Reform congregation.
Its temple was just a block away from the Congregation Anshe Knesset Israel, which in 1930 had started meeting in the former First Christian Church building on the southeast corner of Walnut and Townsend streets.
The Jewish population in Danville reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, but by the next decade, only a handful of members of the Reform congregation remained, and that group closed its temple in 1972. The Congregation Anshe Knesset Israel continued to meet in its building at Walnut and Townsend streets until 1992 when it moved to its present building, which had been Ridgeview Baptist Church.
The congregation renovated the building, requisitioning an artist, David Ascalon who was born in Israel in 1945, to create new stained glass windows and bronze sculptures for the synagogue. Each of the windows on the exterior walls represents a Jewish holiday, and a stained glass arch over the ark in the synagogue symbolizes the 12 tribes of Israel.
Since 1992, the congregation has dwindled as few of the Baby Boomer generation in the congregation came back to the community and many of the following generations went off to college and haven't returned, according to Ehrlich and Mervis. And few new Jewish families have moved to Danville.
"It's sad," said Mervis, adding that the congregation's members feel like a family and are sad that the Danville community will no longer have an official Jewish congregation. "We've done a lot in this community."
Ehrlich said the group will continue to meet in a room in an office building provided by Mervis Industries. He said a house of worship is a focus of the Jewish faith but the congregation can pray anywhere. He said they've been talking to some prospective buyers for the building, which they would like to remain a house of worship, and are arranging for the stained-glass windows to be donated to a group at Indiana University to be incorporated into a house of worship there.
Ehrlich said it will mean more to the local congregation for the windows to remain in the Midwest where they can go to a service if they want.
On Oct. 12-13, the congregation will hold its concluding services with Rabbi Sheldon Switkin of Columbus, Ohio, who has led the congregation in prayer for the last 25 years. A memorial service will be held in the Jewish section of Spring Hill Cemetery on Oct. 14, and Ehrlich said many former members from all over the country will be returning for the conclusion services.
"It's bittersweet," he said. "It will be a very tearful weekend."
History of Congregation Anshe Knesset Israel
1902 - The first Jewish congregation in Danville, Temple Beth El, was officially organized on Oct. 12, 1902. It was incorporated in 1909 as the Reform Congregation of Danville.
1915 - Meanwhile, eastern European, Russian and Polish tradesmen with Orthodox religious leanings were attempting to organize their own congregation, and on Sept. 20, 1915, incorporated Congregation Anshe Knesset Israel (People of the Fellowship of Israel) as a Conservative Jewish congregation. It is this congregation that became the Congregation Israel Synagogue of today.
1920 - The Congregation Anshe Knesset Israel purchased the old German Methodist Church on the northeast corner of Harrison and Washington streets.
1930 - The congregation purchased the former First Christian Church building on the southeast corner of Walnut and Townsend streets. This building served the congregation until 1992.
1950-1960s - The membership of Congregation Israel fluctuates with the Jewish population of Danville, reaching its peak in the '50s and '60s.
1972 - The handful of members remaining in the Reform congregation closed their Temple at the southeast corner of Walnut and Fairchild streets and donated the building, which was demolished in 1999 to make way for a CVS store.
1992 - Despite dwindling membership, the Congregation Anshe Knesset Israel moves to the former Ridgeview Baptist Church building at the corner of Jackson Street and Ridgeview.
Oct. 12-13, 2012 - Congregation Anshe Knesset Israel to hold concluding services.
Source: History of the Jewish Community in Danville written by Sybil Mervis