Wiping away tears, Sally Stein gazed Wednesday at the empty Torah ark inside Congregation Beit Kodesh for perhaps the last time.
"It's heart-wrenching to leave," said Stein, 50, a lifelong member. "It's not easy. I've been here my entire life."
Wednesday was the last day for the Livonia synagogue, the one remaining Conservative Jewish center in western Wayne County. It closed because its aging membership was not replaced by younger Jewish families and it became unable to pay its expenses.
The demographic changes are echoed across the region as metro Detroit's Jewish population ages. Except for Florida communities, metro Detroit has the oldest Jewish population in the U.S., according to the Jewish Population Study.
Stein spent the day going through the supplies at Beit Kodesh, some of which will be transferred to the membership's new home at Congregation B'nai Moshe in West Bloomfield.
Stein said she is looking forward to her new synagogue, but grew emotional thinking about all her warm memories at Beit Kodesh. Compared with Oakland County, there are not many Jews in Livonia and other western Wayne communities, and so the synagogue was important to its members.
"We were the little neighborhood shul," Stein said. "It was a true family."
The congregation started in 1958, holding services in a farmhouse and church before moving into the center on 7 Mile Road. The building was previously a Hebrew school.
Stein reminisced about family bat mitzvahs at Beit Kodesh, and when her parents renewed their wedding vows.
Phyllis Lewkowicz, 76, of Livonia remembered how congregants prepared in the synagogue's kitchen Jewish fare such as kugel, chopped egg and onion and lox and bagels.
Over the years, the surrounding community has been helpful, she said. In the 1970s, someone defaced the synagogue with Nazi swastikas. But afterward, people sent letters of support and money to help out.
At its peak, the synagogue had 100 families. But it dropped to 46 and was unable to afford a full-time rabbi.
"The fact that this small congregation managed to keep its doors open as long as it did is a success story," said Rabbi Jason Miller of Farmington Hills, a former rabbinic adviser with the synagogue. They were "the little shul that could."