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Synagogue Mergers Are Difficult, but Some Still Succeed

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Ken Waltman and Brian Pearl play ball together. Now they want to pray together.

The two men — one from this city’s Conservative congregation, the other a member of the Reform synagogue — say it makes sense for their shuls to merge.

A joint steering committee has been exploring merger options since the summer, but negotiations have stalled. A November vote by both congregations was postponed to mid-January.

At issue is who must move. The Conservative congregation wants both synagogues to build a new facility in the western part of Des Moines, while the Reform congregation wants to stay in its building and have the Conservatives move there.

Ego and money are also big factors, say Pearl and Waltman, who play basketball every Sunday with guys from both shuls.

“No matter what you do, you’re always going to have people who are not happy with the outcome,” Waltman says.

The main opposition in his congregation comes from older members, he says, and that frustrates him.

“It should be about the kids,” Waltman says. “They should defer to the future generation.”

The Des Moines situation is being repeated acrosss the country. As Jewish populations shift, with young Jews leaving the suburbs and Midwest in favor of both coasts and larger cities, older congregations are merging to save money and consolidate their shrinking memberships.

Most mergers take place between congregations of the same denomination. Even so, the logistics can prove nightmarish: Whose rabbi stays, whose Torah scrolls get used, whose building gets sold, whose dues structure prevails? The negotiations are even more complex when the merger involves congregations from different denominations.

While many early 20th-century mergers were between Orthodox and Conservative congregations, most today involve Conservative and Reform. There are no hard numbers, except for those dozen or so who maintain dual affiliation with both movements. Most affiliate with one movement or the other, and their histories are only remembered anecdotally.

When shuls of two denominations join forces, they face real questions of ritual and Jewish law along with the power dynamics and logistical difficulties attendant upon any organizational consolidation.

“It’s a difference in religious culture,” says Rabbi Chuck Simon, executive director of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs. “On kashrut, are you willing to maintain standards? And of course there’s patrilineality,” he says, referring to the Reform practice of recognizing the children of non-Jewish mothers as Jewish, which Conservatives do not accept.

“On the Reform side, there’s the fear of becoming ‘too Conservative.’ What if the rabbi wants me to go to the mikveh, or keep kosher?”

Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, estimates that 50 percent of such merger attempts fail. He attributes that mostly to unwillingness to compromise.

Even when mergers go through, one often sees the persistence of two “congregations” in one building, even years later sometimes, rather than the creation of one integrated congregation with shared values and behaviors.

This is perpetuated by the practice, common in many merged congregations, of holding Reform services Friday night and Conservative, or more traditional, services Saturday morning.

It’s been done that way at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Israel-Judea since 1969. That’s the year Beth Israel, an older Conservative congregation located in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood, joined Temple Judea, a Reform congregation with a new rabbi who was attracting younger families.

“It was a merger of convenience, of necessity” explains Estell Goldstein, who was 30 at the time and a member of Beth Israel. Even so, she adds, “It was a monumentally difficult thing to bring off, nothing anyone should go into lightly.”

Beth Israel had a kosher kitchen, while Temple Judea did not. Judea’s rabbi performed mixed marriages and the congregation read Torah on Friday night, both of which appalled many Beth Israel members.

After long debate, the kitchen in the new congregation was declared “restrictive,” meaning no non-kosher meat and no mixing of milk and meat, the rabbi kept doing intermarriages and the Torah was read on Fridays.

Some people, like Goldstein, were relieved. Others, from both the Reform and Conservative sides, left. Even today the cultural split persists.

Eric Reynard is one who prefers the Friday night services, which follow a copied handout, are in English and involve lots of singing.

“I get the feeling of Shabbat, I sing happy songs, have a thimbleful of wine and, thank you very much, I’m done,” Reynard says.

Others join Edith Hylton, a former member of Beth Israel, on Saturday morning, when services follow the Conservative prayer book.

“There’s a heimish feeling, a warmth,” Hylton says of her preference.

A year ago Beth Israel-Judea hired Rabbi Rosalind Glazer, a Reconstructionist rabbi. She says that’s no accident.

“There’s still a hybrid identity, and some of them thought a Reconstructionist would rescue them from it,” Glazer suggests.

Hiring a new rabbi can help or hurt a merged congregation. Sometimes a new rabbi from one denomination, determined to show neutrality, can actually strengthen the “other side.”

Rabbi Tracee Rosen is the first Conservative rabbi hired by Congregation Kol Ami, a merged congregation in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Upon arriving four years ago, Rosen noted that the Conservative services Saturday morning were full, due to a strong Conservative laity, while the Friday night Reform services barely drew a minyan. So she added family services and rock bands on Friday nights, and created a second Reform High Holy Days service to supplement the more traditional service.

“It’s ironic that it took a Conservative rabbi to loosen things up,” she says.

Rosen has learned as well about the persistence of old ways.

“When I got here, people said what was needed was a fusion service, blending Reform and Conservative, everyone sitting together happily in one service,” she relates.

While such a service was created, and is held about once a month, it has not proven popular — the people want what they’re used to.

“We need to honor both our Reform and Conservative roots,” Rosen says, “not try to shoehorn everyone into one size fits all.”

Some merged congregations maintain dual affilation, paying dues to both movements.

That’s harder today than it once was, says Rabbi Steven Kushner of Congregation Ner Tamid, a merged congregation in Bloomfield, N.J. Ner Tamid was dual affiliated for two decades, but lost its Conservative affiliation in 2000 over its recognition of patrilineal descent.

Today the congregation is “mainstream Reform,” says Kushner, after years of trying to respect both traditions.

Freelander says mergers between two congregations of similar size are usually easier than when a larger, more successful congregation “acquires” a smaller, failing one. Congregations of equal strength that come together are more willing to respect the traditions of each.

Talented leadership sometimes can overcome those odds. That was true in Corpus Christi, Texas, where an aging, dwindling Conservative congregation merged two years ago with a Reform temple double its size.

“Rather than wait for the Conservative congregation to collapse, we decided to merge while both were still on their feet. That way, everyone could have dignity,” says Rabbi Kenneth Roseman, who was hired by the Reform congregation in 2002 and remains the spiritual leader of the combined synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel.

First, to build trust, the congregations merged their religious schools. Then they brought in a consultant to help them discuss sticky issues like whose worship service to follow and whether the kitchen should be made kosher.

Although the Reform community was larger and the new congregation affiliates only with the Reform movement, compromises were made: Friday night services are Reform, while Saturday morning is modified Conservative; a kosher dairy kitchen was built alongside the existing non-kosher kitchen; and unused space has been made into a chapel for a weekly Conservative minyan.

Two High Holy Days services were held this fall. Rather than proving divisive, former congregational president Rona Chafetz Train says it showed how welcoming the new congregation can be.

“The beautiful thing is, people went back and forth between the services,” she relates. “People who had never been to a Conservative service could see one, and the same for the Reform. Everybody was going around with a smile on their face, hugging each other.”

New members joined after the holidays, Train says, further proof of the merger’s success.

It’s about recognizing the need to preserve Jewish communities that would otherwise die out, she says.

“What we did,” Train says, “was aimed at the survival of the Corpus Christi Jewish community.”

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