The large newspaper ad touted Congregation Beth Sholom's open-door policy for the Jewish High Holy Days. "Come Pray with us,'' it said.
The invitation is well-timed. With the approach of the High Holy Days, Sabbath service regulars and those less so will crowd synagogues and temples to pray. Those without tickets could find themselves shut out of the all-important Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, which begin and end the solemn period. Tickets usually come with the payment of annual synagogue or temple dues — collected instead of weekly offerings — but nonmembers often are charged a fee.
Congregation Beth Sholom has dispensed with such requirements. Tucked away in Gulfport, it has about 45 members, many elderly. Last weekend, a little more than a dozen people prayed at Sabbath services. Some Saturdays, leaders must make telephone calls to gather a minyan or quorum of 10 for the required prayers. The rabbi is the long-retired Israel Dvorkin, 99.
A core group of indomitable members vow to keep the synagogue open. It's the reason for the newspaper ads, which leaders hope will bring in young families. During a recent interview, Dr. Paul Cohen, 77, a retired osteopathic physician, and Bernie Wolfson, 71, who retired from a career in pharmaceutical research, said they are determined to keep the synagogue functioning as long as they're alive.
"I'm helping to keep this synagogue open for these older people who would have no other place to go,'' Wolfson said.
He's also doing it for his children, the youngest of whom is 16, he said.
Last weekend members gathered after Sabbath services to say traditional blessings over wine and challah (braided bread). Afterward, they filled paper plates with lox and bagels, salads, herring and gefilte fish and socialized. Everyone has a role, even Raymond Marciulevicius, 38, a student from Lithuania who is Christian. He has taken Hebrew lessons from Cohen and often says a prayer for the United States on the bima or platform. Jewish law, however, precludes him from participating in certain prayers or rituals. Marciulevicius, a St. Petersburg College student, says he feels accepted.
Sheri L. Frogel, 38, joined the synagogue 15 years ago after moving with her family from Chattanooga, Tenn. The family discovered the synagogue during visits to St. Pete Beach.
"When we did move down to Florida, we turned back to Congregation Beth Sholom, because we had such good memories,'' said Frogel, a paralegal supervisor who drives from Largo.
"It's really worth it. I go to two other synagogues from time to time, but the feeling is very unique when you go to that congregation. Each member that attends feel that they are responsible for keeping it going. We feel like we've got to take care of each other.''
The synagogue at 1844 54th St. S began as the Jewish Center of Gulfport in March 1953.
A few years ago, there was talk about merging with the much larger Congregation B'nai Israel in St. Petersburg. Cohen wants the synagogue to take its cue from Israel's national anthem, Hatikva.
"In English, it means the hope and that's our wish that we continue to function, to stay open and hopefully to get new members,'' he said.
Frogel is counting on help from the synagogue's open-door policy during the High Holy Days, which begin Monday at sundown.
"We are hopeful that in this way, those who have never stepped foot in our synagogue can get a glimpse of what is so special about this place,'' she said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.