Synagogue project a sign of times: Northward migration of Jews brings temple to county

July 16, 2007

Some folks consider Congregation Shaarey Tefilla's move to Carmel historic. After all, its new synagogue at 116th Street and Towne Road will be Hamilton County's first. To others, it's simply the latest development in the local Jewish community's century of northward migration.

For Rabbi Arnold Bienstock and his members, it's a homecoming.

"There's a lot of support here," he said. "People need that if they've just moved to an area."

Carmel welcomed Bienstock with open arms 15 years ago, when he moved to central Indiana. Having served under elder rabbis in Portsmouth, N.H., and Toledo, Ohio, Bienstock was eager to establish his own conservative congregation. He quickly found 40 Jewish families in Hamilton County, but couldn't afford to build there. So, instead, he shared an Indianapolis synagogue at 5879 Central Ave. with a trio of older congregations.

Today, Shaarey Tefilla has 160 member families. Most hail from Hamilton County. The majority are Jews who, like Bienstock, moved to Carmel's fast-growing suburbs from other states. Without extended families nearby, they rely on Shaarey Tefilla to supply friendship and Jewish tradition.

But they've never relished the commute. What's more, the current location-built in 1965 with just 12,000 square feet-now is far too small for the congregation. A copying machine fills most of one office. There are no classrooms. And it's difficult to prepare kosher meals for large groups in the outdated kitchen.

"If you have to drive 20 minutes to get to the synagogue, it's just not ideal," said congregation President Kathie-Jo Arnoff. "That building really never was configured for a younger congregation. We really needed classrooms for a religious school. We investigated a number of years ago trying to reconfigure that building, and it just wasn't feasible."

Shaarey Tefilla began formally investigating a move to Carmel four years ago. It broke ground on the $3.5 million project in October. The 21,000-square-foot building is slated for completion this fall.

"The engine that keeps congregations open is young families with children getting involved in religious life," Bienstock said. "Location is everything. In business, it's location, location, location. [We'll be] exactly where the Jewish population is in Carmel."

The number of Jewish residents in Hamilton County has increased rapidly, as has the county's overall population. From 1990 to 2006, the county's population increased from 108,936 to 253,034, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The Census doesn't track religious affiliation. According to the American Jewish Yearbook, as of 2000, Indianapolis was home to about 10,000 of the state's 18,000 Jews. But local Jewish leaders agree that a significant proportion have moved north of Interstate 465.

As recently as 30 years ago, Carmel had only a handful of Jewish families, said Marcia Goldstone, executive director of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council. But the area's wealth of undeveloped property and solid schools increasingly has attracted them.

Decades ago, she noted, the area's Jewish population was concentrated on the south side of Indianapolis. Gradually, she said, Jewish families moved north, and their synagogues and secular facilities followed.

"It's an entirely natural progression. Of course, there will be a synagogue in Hamilton County, in the same way churches are also building there," Goldstone said. "It makes absolute sense that services should follow people."

In a sign of that shift, the Jewish delicatessen Shapiro's in 2001 moved its northside restaurant from West 86th Street in Indianapolis to Range Line Road in Carmel.

Shouldering the cost

Even with the influx of Jews into Carmel, raising the money needed for the new synagogue has been challenging. While younger members are Shaarey Tefilla's future, their pockets aren't deep enough for all its needs today.

The congregation already has raised $1.7 million, nearly half the project budget. It aims to defray some of the remainder with the sale of the Central Avenue building, which it inherited from the older congregations. Bienstock is hoping to draw most of the rest of the money Shaarey Tefilla needs from contributors outside his congregation.

That means attracting support from people like Peter Weisz, a lifelong Carmel resident and member of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck at 600 W. 70th St. Though Weisz doesn't plan to change his affiliation, he's leading fund raising for Shaarey Tefilla's project. He simply wants to see a synagogue built in Carmel.

Weisz is the son of Romanian immigrants. His family came to Indianapolis in the 1950s and settled on the south side.

"You need to take a look at it from a social evolutionary point of view. There's a history of communities moving, particularly the Jewish community, from one side of town to the next, over the last 100 years," he said.

"What has happened at each stage, the synagogue has moved alongside the community as it's made its migration. It's not a question of, 'Why is it happening now?' but, 'Why didn't it happen 20 years ago?'"

Carmel Mayor James Brainard asks the same question. Some still view Carmel as a homogenous bedroom community crowded with Caucasian Christians. But Brainard bristles at that description. He said Congregation Shaarey Tefilla's move is just one of many signs Carmel has grown beyond such stereotypes.

'More diversity'

"There's a lot more diversity in Carmel than people realize. We're probably one of the more diverse cities in the state of Indiana," he said. "Carmel doesn't have any segregated areas, either. I can't name one street that's segregated by race, religion or anything else. And that's not the case in some other cities."

Brainard pointed to his city's recent Fourth of July celebration. In the space of a few minutes, he said, he ran into people originally from Palestine, Israel, India, Dubai and England. Carmel is lucky to boast a highly educated population, Brainard said, and people with college degrees are generally more accepting of diversity.

Indeed, 58 percent of Hamilton County residents have earned a bachelor's degree or more. The statewide rate is just 19 percent.

"We want everyone to feel comfortable in Carmel. It's just the right thing to do," he said. "It's also good economically. Businesses won't locate in a place with issues of tolerance or bigotry."

Even so, Hamilton County has nothing like the diversity of Indianapolis. According to the census, 92 percent of its population is white. That compares with 71 percent in Marion County.

Hamilton is by far the state's most affluent county, and its poverty rate is the lowest. The county's $82,920 median household income is $38,979 above the state's.

Neither businesses nor religious organizations can long ignore demographics like that. Shaarey Tefilla likely won't be the last synagogue to build in Hamilton County. The Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation, at 6501 N. Meridian St., has begun holding regular services and dinners in Carmel's City Hall.

"[The idea] was to reach out to our members who are up in Carmel, to give them an alternative place to worship and hold services," said Mike Kerschner, president of the congregation. "At this point, there's nothing more formal than that."

"We're in the midst of some strategic planning," he added. "[But] it's not something that's out of the question at this point, to build up there."
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