By Michael Holtzman
The Herald News
---- — FALL RIVER, Mass. (AP) — As Congregation Adas Israel marked the end of its residency at the historic synagogue on Robeson Street, another religious group moved in and gave the building a new life.
Early this month, Pastor Donat Boucher welcomed The Word of Life Community Church into its new and unique home in the city’s North End.
“It was an exciting day,” Boucher said, as the last of about 100 adults and children of his evangelical congregation smiled and waved good-byes after a morning of Scripture reading, Sunday school classes and refreshments.
Just a couple of days before, on Nov. 29, Congregation Adas Israel sold its property, including a chapel and building, to Word of Life. Adas Israel is the last of what had been five or six orthodox synagogues for ultra-observant Jews in Fall River.
The sale was for $400,000, said Renee Lipson, an Adas Israel member and the agent for Brenner Real Estate Co. listing the property at Robeson and Nichols streets.
For most of the past year, The Word of Life church held its services a few times a week and paid monthly rent at the Marine Museum on Water Street. They’ve also used the Visitor Center at Heritage State Park and a building on Ferry Street. Boucher, raised Catholic in Fall River, said his following has grown steadily since he started the church as a born-again Christian in his dining room in 2007.
“It was quite a journey,” Boucher said, adding, “I knew this is where God wanted us.”
While Boucher exchanged warm smiles and a hug good-bye with Jeffrey Weissman, the president of Congregation Adas Israel, the latter had a melancholy thought to share: Dec. 1 marked the first Saturday since 1959 that Weissman’s dwindling number of Jewish orthodox congregants did not hold worship service in their building.
Lipson and Weissman each thought back to earlier in the 20th century when orthodox Jews — who would choose not to drive or work or watch television on the Sabbath — had synagogues in the Flint, on Union and Columbia and Pleasant streets, and Adas Israel congregants worshipped in a building on Pearl Street.
In 1959, those Jews who practiced their faith similarly joined together with Adas Israel and built a new home on Robeson Street.
Weissman said wistfully that he could remember the days when the 248 cushioned seats of wooden pews in the chapel were filled, and extra rows of chairs were set up in the adjacent room where food and drink were served.
In 1965, Weissman and his wife, Janet, were among the first people married in the synagogue.
The synagogue’s auditorium is named for the late Ruby Gittelman, the father of the record company owner, Danny Gittelman, who helped start the career of pop singer Whitney Houston, who had visited Fall River as a teenager and young woman and died earlier this year.
Weissman said Congregation Adas Israel has dropped to fewer than two dozen active members as young Jewish people leave Fall River and the elders get older or move away. At 70, Weissman, who lives two blocks away, chuckled that he’s a youngster in the congregation.
Orthodox Jews follow strict rules: men and women sit and pray separately, unlike conservative and reform Jews who comprise other denominations of the faith. Orthodox women cannot come up to the bema to say prayers over the holy Torah like men.
Temple Beth-El at 385 High St., a conservative congregation, has designated room in its spacious building for Adas Israel to worship separately and follow their Jewish orthodox customs. With the sale of the Robeson Street synagogue, Beth-El is now the sole Jewish house of worship in Fall River.
At its last Sabbath service on Robeson Street late last month, about 15 Adas Israel members attended, Weissman said. It was a pretty good final showing, he said.
While Adas Israel members said the moment was bittersweet after selling their synagogue, which had been listed for sale for the past year, members of both faiths said the building’s continued use as a house of worship is a blessing.
“I’m very grateful to the folks at the synagogue,” said Boucher, praising Lipson and her husband.
Lipson, in turn, said, “(Word of Life) were ‘homeless’ for quite a while. They now have found a home, and they’re so appreciative and feel so blessed to have such a beautiful building whereby they can grow their congregation.”
“They’re very nice people. We got along very well,” Weissman said of Word of Life leaders.
Boucher described Word of Life’s religious approach.
“I teach the word of God, line by line, from the Scriptures. There’s a hunger for it,” he said.
His experience working with people recovering from drug and alcohol abuse is also part of the ministry.
Their services include worship for slightly more than an hour on Sundays at 10 a.m. and Wednesdays at 7 p.m., and alternating Thursday Bible study at 7 p.m. and prayer service at 6 p.m.
Members are primarily from Fall River, with several from Somerset, Swansea, Dighton and nearby towns. Children’s Sunday school and nursery are part of their offerings. More information is available at its website, www.wordoflifecc.net, or by calling the church at 774-365-2552.
Paul Cordeiro, who’s been with Boucher since the start, is the current president.
Inside the spacious chapel about noon on Sunday, most of the Jewish bronze plaques and symbols had been removed. However, some remained, including distinctive Hebrew words affixed to a wall, near a large wooden cross recently installed behind the podium.
Weissman offered the translation: “Know before whom you stand.”
“I love that saying,” said Boucher, who knew what it meant.
“That’s not a Jewish thing. It’s universal,” Weissman said.
Boucher said he plans to put up the English translation, next to the Hebrew one.