As the Torahs are paraded around the sanctuary at Birmingham’s Knesseth Israel on Simchat Torah this year, it will likely be the last time such a procession will be held in that building.
The state’s only non-Chabad Orthodox congregation will be moving out of the Friedman Center and setting up in the rabbi’s home across the street, on Crosby Drive.
A congregational meeting was held on July 26 to discuss the upcoming sale of the building, ending an atmosphere of uncertainty that has existed for several years.
The Friedman Center is under contract to an undisclosed buyer, and the sale is expected to close the first week of October. The congregation will have the full series of upcoming High Holy Day and Sukkot services in the building, then vacate the premises by the end of September.
Knesseth Israel moved into the Overton Road property in 2007 after several years of planning and a community-wide campaign that brought in about $5.4 million.
Since 1955, Knesseth Israel had been on Montevallo Road, but the facility had developed numerous costly maintenance issues, and being situated next to the Birmingham Country Club’s golf course, there was very little affordable housing within walking distance for young families. In December 2005, the congregation voted to relocate to Overton Road, one block from the Bais Ariel Chabad Center.
By 2012, difficulties in selling the congregation’s previous property in the midst of a real estate downturn and other financial issues took their toll. A letter went out to congregants informing them that over $3 million was owed to the bank as about $8 million had been put into the new property, and the congregation agreed to put the building on the market.
In 2013, after the building had not sold for several months, Jimmy Filler and Brenda and Fred Friedman acquired the building, which was renamed the Friedman Center for Jewish Life and was made available to the community.
Part of the agreement was that Knesseth Israel could remain in the 18,000-square-foot facility.
When Collat Jewish Family Services began CJFS CARES in 2015, a program for those with Alzheimer’s and other memory or movement disorders, the program was housed at the Friedman Center, and Temple Beth-El held some religious school classes there.
By 2016, the building had become “a financial burden to its owner,” according to a letter sent out by then-KI President Ken Ehrenberg, and the property was going back on the market. Since then, there have been a couple of sales that fell through, but this time it is anticipated the deal will close.
Over the past few years, the congregation was also struggling with meeting the expenses of being in the large building, and plans to move into the rabbi’s house started being formulated. As part of the earlier agreement with the bank, the house is owned by Knesseth Israel, free and clear.
KI President Martin Stein explained that services will be held on the first floor, and there will be an office in the basement, with Rabbi Moshe Rube living upstairs. The basement and first floor will be painted, the plumbing upgraded, and the back deck will be replaced, possibly with a space that can be used year-round.
With the move, the congregation will be able to operate at a balanced budget, putting any additional contributions above current levels into a new emphasis on educational programming.
For the long term, a building fund is being proposed, in case the congregation decides, years down the road, that it needs a new space.
At the meeting, it was pointed out that in many heavily-Orthodox areas, shuls are the first floor of residences, with the rabbi living upstairs, so this is actually a traditional arrangement.
At the start of the meeting, Rube referenced the week’s haftorah, one of the sections of consolation in Isaiah following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem. He noted that the center of religious life is the religious community, and it isn’t good to have one’s identity based upon a building.
The move will be “a transition to a new beginning,” he said.
With the sale, CJFS CARES, which currently meets every Monday to Thursday, also needed to find new space. The agency will be partnering with St. Stephens Church in moving down the street to the former St. John’s Episcopal Church for the Deaf building on Crosshaven Drive. The program will move in September.
Lauren Schwartz, executive director of CJFS, said “We are grateful for the partnership we have shared over the past 3-1/2 years with the Friedman Center for Jewish Life, and we’re looking forward to creating a safe and comfortable space for CARES in this new location.”