Synagogue merger stalls after a rabbi is accused of sexual misconduct
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Synagogue merger stalls after a rabbi is accused of sexual misconduct

BALTIMORE (Jmore via JTA) — Merger talks between two historic Reform synagogues in the Baltimore suburbs were called off after allegations came to light of a rabbi’s sexual misconduct involving a minor.

After nearly a year of deliberations, the Har Sinai Congregation in Owing Mills will “cease exploration of a merger” with Temple Oheb Shalom in Pikesville. Rabbi Linda Joseph of Har Sinai announced the decision in the congregation’s monthly newsletter, The Connection.

Last September, the two congregations said they were exploring the possibility of a merger. But in May, Oheb Shalom congregants were notified that their spiritual leader since 1999, Rabbi Steven Fink, was suspended with pay. According to a letter from Oheb Shalom’s leadership, the suspension followed allegations “of an improper incident of a sexual nature that may have occurred a number of years ago involving Rabbi Fink and a then teenager, who was a minor at the time.”

The letter said that the matter was reported to Maryland authorities and the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis as soon as Oheb Shalom’s board of directors became aware of the accusation.

Shortly after the allegations surfaced, Har Sinai announced a “30-day pause” in exploration talks with Oheb Shalom. A couple of weeks later, the Oheb Shalom leadership announced that the temple temporarily postponed the merger exploration with Har Sinai to focus on “managing our own needs at this time.”

Instead of pursuing a merger, Joseph wrote that her congregation will “concentrate our efforts on finding a viable road map for Har Sinai Congregation in the future.”

Reached Tuesday by phone, Har Sinai’s administrator, Valerie Thaler, confirmed to Jmore that the synagogue’s board of directors voted against the merger on July 17. Jmore also reached out to Oheb Shalom’s executive director, Ken Davidson, but was told he was unavailable.

Founded in 1853, Oheb Shalom has a membership of approximately 625 families. The synagogue hired an interim spiritual leader, Rabbi Marc Disick, who has been leading services while the investigations of Fink continue.

With the merger talks over, Har Sinai is now considering other means of reducing expenses and increasing revenue. In the latest issue of The Connection, Ken Bell, its second vice president, wrote that the 176-year-old congregation is considering whether to remain at its current site and take steps to reduce expenses and increase revenue (such as leasing additional space in the building), or to sell the 60,000-square-foot building and move to a smaller facility.

Har Sinai has a membership of 260 households and is the oldest continuously Reform congregation in the United States.