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West Hempstead synagogue houses Temple B’Nai Israel of Elmont

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After years of dwindling membership, Temple B’Nai Israel of Elmont sold its building on Elmont Road last year and moved into the Congregation Shaaray Shalom synagogue in West Hempstead a few months later. There the Elmont congregation worships in its own chapel and runs its own programs.

“We’re maintaining our own congregation and our own identity,” said Rosemary Orlandino, Temple B’Nai Israel’s secretary.

“This is not a merger,” Orlandino added. “We’re tenants here.”

The temple moved into the synagogue last December, after serving Elmont’s Jewish population for more than 70 years. When it was founded, Elmont was home to many first-generation Jewish-Americans who could buy their own homes and practice their religion freely, without fear of the discrimination they faced in neighboring communities, according to Bonnie Cohen, a longtime member of the temple.

Elmont was more accepting, Cohen said, and Rabbi Samuel Kehati, Temple B’Nai Israel’s spiritual leader for more than 40 years, said the synagogue once boasted a congregation of 600 families, many of whom volunteered in the community. Kehati previously told the Herald that he often lectured to students on the Old Testament at the St. Boniface School, and held joint Thanksgiving celebrations with the church. He also collaborated with Rabbi Art Vernon, Shaaray Shalom’s spiritual leader, on a variety of programs.

But over the years, Elmont’s Jewish population shrank as Hispanic and Caribbean-Americans moved in. The U.S. Census estimated that in 2017, African-Americans and Hispanics made up the majority of Elmont’s population, and Sperling’s Best Places — which gathers community demographics and information for the real estate business — showed that only about 1,000 Jewish residents remained in Elmont in 2017.

“The demographics changed,” Ke-hati said, “and the Jewish community was no longer visible.” He added that the temple now has only 130 member families, and had to sell its building.

When he learned about that, Vernon said, he was willing to help — not only because he knew Kehati, but also because he supported the Reform synagogue’s religious policies.

“For me, it was a question of just determining whether or not the congregation was still the congregation that I remembered, and that they would be comfortable with our religious standards,” Vernon said. “I had a simple conversation with their rabbi, who I have the utmost respect for, we established ground rules and we welcomed them with open arms.”

Vernon also said that there have been no conflicts with the two congregations’ programs overlapping, and that members have enjoyed one another’s company. Some of Temple B’Nai’s congregants, he said, have even attended Shaaray Shalom’s programs.

Vernon said he hoped to find opportunities for the two synagogues to collaborate on programs. “We’re still feeling each other out,” he said. “But I have to say, the relationship is going very well. There’s mutual respect on both sides, and we hope this relationship will continue for many years.

“Whether it will become anything more than a rental arrangement down the road,” he added, “that depends on B’Nai Israel and how they see its destiny.”