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Priceless Partnerships
by Marge Eiseman

Eight years ago, Temple Emanu-El of Utica, New York (Reform) received a letter from two respected members of Temple Beth El (Conservative): “The hand-writing is on the wall. We should talk.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, the Utica area had experienced a 20% drop in total population: Young people had moved to bigger urban centers and local snowbirds were no longer returning north. Synagogue membership rolls had declined, too— Emanu-El’s down to 160 households from a peak of 300 and Beth El’s to fewer than 200 households from a peak of 800. Beth El no longer needed a four-story, 30,000-square-foot building (which a local nonprofit offered to purchase) or a religious school (there were hardly any young children), and its rabbi was ready to retire. Emanu-El’s rabbi was leaving.

Leaders of both congregations began work on a cooperative short-term sharing agreement. By 2005, the two were sharing Emanu-El’s building, a rabbi, a long-range planning committee, a religious school, social action initiatives, and a youth group. Nowadays Reform Rabbi Jeff Segall leads Reform services on Friday nights and Conservative services on Shabbat morning. On the High Holy Days he officiates at whichever service is held in the sanctuary; the Reform group has the coveted space one year and the Conservative group the next (lay-led services are held at the Jewish Community Center). Both temples maintain separate business offices and boards of trustees, therefore Rabbi Segall attends two monthly board meetings and two ritual committee meetings, and receives two paychecks.

The best opportunity for social integration occurs on Sunday mornings, when the minyan attendees stay around to share bagels and coffee with the parents who have dropped off their kids for religious school, and they all sit down for Torah study together. “You’ll never overcome the ritual or the cultural differences,” Rabbi Segall says, “but if you can have people feeling good socially about each other, making points of connection, that creates good feeling that gets you through the hard times.”

True, some Beth El people still mourn the loss of their “beautiful building downtown where all the memories of going to religious school, getting married, being in the sanctuary for the High Holy Days are wrapped up in this spiritual home,” observes Rabbi Segall. Seeing their former synagogue restored as The Resource Center for Independent Living is bittersweet.

Nonetheless, Beth El and Emanu-El are working on their next short-term sharing agreement, and temple leaders expect that eventually the congregations will merge. “The community is a lot better off,” says Joel Schwartz, who serves as chair of the joint long-range planning committee. “Financially, we seem to be stable, and we’re attracting some new members. There’s also a much higher level of Jewish activity.”

One day in the winter of 2007, Fran Snavely and Mary Singer, two self-described “left-handed, retired grandmas,” sat in the local Spokane, Washington coffee shop. Sipping lattes, they examined the bylaws of their respective URJ-affiliated havurot for areas of agreement.

Six years earlier, after having operated for nine years as one havurah, this small Reform community split into two. Ner Tamid’s older, more knowledgeable folks wanted to lead their own services; Beth Haverim’s younger families wanted to hire a part-time student rabbi and run a religious school for their children.

In time, though, members of both havurot began to question the practicality of sustaining two groups, each paying monthly rents, utilities, etc., and decided to move toward consolidation. (Consolidation generally refers to the blending of relatively equal partners, whereas a merger usually means one entity is absorbed by another larger one.)

By the winter of 2008, the two havurot overcame their differences and joined in founding a new congregation they named Temple Emanu-El, in honor of Spokane’s founding Reform congregation, which itself had merged out of existence in 1965. Mary Singer, who now serves as co-president with Fran Snavely, says simply, “It’s a happy group.”

Consolidations and mergers are nothing new in the Jewish congregational world, as evidenced by the hyphenated, strung-together names of Congregation K.A.M. Isaiah Israel (on the South Side of Chicago), Temple Emanu-El Beth Shalom (in Quebec, Canada), and Congregation Beth Shalom Rodfe Zedek (in Chester, Connecticut). But unlike past mergers, which typically followed regional demographic shifts, today’s mergers are accelerating in pace, fueled by a coast-to-coast distressed economy.

“There isn’t a region of the United States in which congregations are not seriously exploring mergers,” says Rabbi David Fine, URJ consulting specialist for synagogues exploring mergers, new congregations, and congregations in transition.

In December 2008, Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie acknowledged the scope and urgency of the crisis when he told the URJ Board: “The time has come for the Reform and Conservative Movements to work together [and] take a hard look at whether they need to merge or share services, buildings, and staff.…” Even the different Movements themselves, he said, might consider sharing staff to serve synagogue life.

Congregations generally want to continue as independent organizations. They come into being with a specific mission, Rabbi Fine says, and have their own “life-cycle”—a beginning birth stage, explosive teen-age years, many years of vital adult life, and, sometimes, decline. They plan for growth, and expect to have appropriate staffing and adequate funding to maintain themselves for generations. When this scenario changes dramatically, says Alice Mann of the Alban Institute, which specializes in consulting with religious institutions, congregations face a range of strategic options that include sharing facilities, staff, and/or programs; merging with another organization; moving locations; downsizing; doing nothing; or creating a new approach. Each option, she says, has its value, depending on the urgency of the situation and the motivating factors. While some congregations may navigate these decisions alone, others may wish to take advantage of the Union for Reform Judaism’s consulting specialist, Rabbi David Fine (

The Sharing Option

In Southbury, Connecticut, Congregation B’nai Israel (Reform) and the Federation of Western Connecticut formed a limited liability corporation that in 2002 built a new Jewish community campus serving both organizations under one roof. In addition, the local Conservative congregation rents the chapel; the sanctuary, however, remains dedicated B’nai Israel space. “Although this model requires trust and compromise, it’s not one institution supporting a building, it’s three, [enabling us to] take advantage of economies of scale,” explains B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Eric Polokoff. “We’re all in this together.” Even the local Orthodox rabbi, while unable to move his congregation to the campus because of the need for proximity to congregants’ homes, sent a donation to the fundraising effort with a message that he hopes it succeeds.

Rabbi Polokoff acknowledges that there are turf issues—“each side has some partisans who think the other side is getting a better deal”—but on the whole, he says, “this works really well. Our functions are extremely complementary. The Federation runs a preschool, the synagogue runs the religious school—and the kids use the same desks. Now that we’re sharing space, people see the overlap in mission.” And, when needed, the groups sit down and informally figure out what each side does best.

The Merger/Consolidation Option

While the two Spokane havurot had been independent long enough to heal their divisions prior to consolidation, the situation in Bloomfield, New Jersey that initially led to the creation of Congregation Ner Tamid was quite different, says founding Rabbi Steve Kushner.

Ner Tamid was born in the late 1970s as a merger between Temple Menorah (Reform) and Temple B’nai Zion (Conservative). The then-president of the combined congregation, Emil Weiss, said at the time, “We are not going to be all things to all people. No swinging back and forth. This is a new synagogue, and we are going to chart a middle path.”

The first year was pretty rough, Rabbi Kushner recalls. The former Temple Menorah people were feeling out of place, even though they remained in their own building, used their own prayerbook (Gates of Prayer), and hired all new clergy who had been trained at the Reform seminary HUC-JIR. Still, the new clergy were not leading the services the way the former rabbis used to, “meaning melodies had changed and more of the prayer was in Hebrew.” For their part, the former B’nai Zion congregants were finding comfort in some but not all of the liturgical choices.

In time, Rabbi Kushner reports, the congregation did find that middle path: “After about ten years, people finally stopped referring to which congregation they had come from,” he recalls. Now, he says, the combined community is stronger than either former congregation would have been alone.

A decade ago in Homewood, Illinois, Temple B’nai Yehuda, a more traditional Reform synagogue (in which men wore kippot and a lay cantor chanted prayers in Hebrew) merged with Congregation Beth Sholom, a Classical Reform temple (in which men prayed bareheaded and the use of Hebrew was minimal at best).

Though both were Reform, their origins and ideologies posed significant challenges. Temple B’nai Yehuda was founded by German refugees in 1944 as the Hyde Park Liberal Synagogue on Chicago’s south side. Always a small congregation on the traditional end of the Reform Movement, the congregation was led by Rabbi Leo Wolkow for 34 years.

Congregation Beth Sholom was founded in nearby Park Forest in 1951 by second- and third-generation Americans and led over the years by several different spiritual leaders, the last of whom, Rabbi Ellen Weinberg Dreyfus, was hired part-time in 1987.

When in 1996 Rabbi Wolkow announced his retirement, Rabbi Dreyfus was selected as his full-time successor. A merger now made sense, as the two congregations were already sharing a school and the members involved in it had established good relationships. In spring 1997, Beth Sholom and B’nai Yehuda formed a steering committee (comprised of leaders from each congregation) as well as a series of task forces (composed of an equal number of representatives from each congregation) to work on rituals, music, finances, buildings, governance, and bylaws. Each task force had to decide such difficult questions as which building to keep (ultimately they chose the larger, newer B’nai Yehuda facility) and whether High Holiday music would be in the B’nai Yehuda style of part-time lay cantor and volunteer choir or the Beth Sholom way, with a professional quartet augmenting a choir (ultimately some of Beth Sholom’s favorite music was included but the quartet was not).

After seven months, the task forces issued a merger document which recommended that Congregation B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom become an egalitarian congregation, offering kippot and tallitot for optional use by both men and women. Each congregation approved the merger document independently and almost unanimously.

Of course, there were still bumps in the road. The summer after the merger, while Rabbi Dreyfus was away, a very upset congregant contacted her to protest: “Last Shabbat, the person who read the Torah was not wearing a kippah!” Upon her return, Rabbi Dreyfus responded by leading a program which explored the origins of many Jewish rituals, including the wearing of kippot and tallitot. Both “to wear” and “not to wear,” she explained, were valid customs; imposing one way or the other was not in fact Reform practice. And when the same bareheaded Torah reader stepped up to the bimah on the High Holidays, even though it was raining hard outside, says Rabbi Dreyfus, “lightning did not strike the temple.”

Nowadays, in this very vital congregation, there is little reference to those days before the merger.

The “Keep Going” Option

In times of economic and/or demographic adversity, another possibility is staying the course. “If you do,” says Alban Institute’s Alice Mann, “you have to consider how long you can last. Think about moving to a smaller facility or renting space.” Especially in bigger cities, congregations may need to find their “special sauce”—the thing that will make people want to travel to be part of a unique community.

The Consortium Option

Another way to maintain one’s congregation in tough times is to create consortiums that extend beyond the synagogue world. A good example is the Rivertowns Jewish Consortium (RJC), composed of five Jewish organizations in New York’s Westchester County—Woodlands Community Temple in White Plains (Reform), Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown (Reform), Greenberg Hebrew Center in Dobbs Ferry (Conservative), Rosh Pinah of the Rivertowns (an unaffiliated havurah), and the JCC-on-the-Hudson. With just one staffer (a JCC employee) and a volunteer board comprised of representatives from the five institutions, the five partner in brainstorming, troubleshooting, and programming.

At Rivertowns, no one is merging or sharing facilities, but “getting creative with community resources to engage Jews,” explains JCC Executive Director Frank Hassid. For example, when he noticed that the two Reform congregations weren’t attracting the same young families who were joining the JCC and using the preschool, he worked with the consortium partners to offer a special $1,000/year community membership to families with children under seven years old. While the arrangement means less income for the JCC, Hassid hopes to interest families in belonging to both a synagogue and the JCC, which primes the pump for the future.

If your congregation is exploring some of these strategic options, or others, these guidelines (as well as the support of URJ consulting specialist Rabbi David Fine) may help you on your journey:

Engage in Honest Self-Assessment

Sharing, mergers, broader partnerships, downsizing, etc.…there is no one right choice for every congregation or community. An honest and realistic self-assessment of your synagogue’s situation will help determine the best course of action.

Rabbi Fine suggests that you ask yourself: How would I describe the health of our synagogue? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Does our congregation have a shared vision? Should we look for outside wisdom to guide us? Do we have the skills necessary to navigate the course we set? Would we do better partnered than going it alone?

Envision the Future

Alban Institute synagogue consultant Bob Leventhal says it best: “One of the things that most helps [synagogues exploring a merger] is when both congregations get excited about the future, when they see how they can better serve their community by holding a shared vision. Having the vision as a touchstone, a clearly articulated goal, helps people make compromises and get over the sticking points.”

Form Social Connections

Engage in informal and repeated social gathering with members of the “other congregation.” At B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom, for example, an integration committee orchestrated six months of pre-merger events, including “Invite Someone to Dinner and Share Shabbat,” intimate gatherings where people got to share their stories and then pray together at services.

Expect and Prepare for Stumbling Blocks

What may seem impossible stumbling blocks can be overcome. The Utica congregation, for example, retains affiliation with both the Reform and Conservative Movements, and youth group members attend the regional and national gatherings of their choosing. As for kashrut, the synagogue kitchen is “kashered” before joint dinners and Pesach; the rest of the time, congregants are free to bring in their favorite recipe from home for potluck dinners.

“Each side has the minyan who are orthodox and vocal in their beliefs,” says Mark Kall, past president of the Conservative congregation. “The rest are in the middle, happy to have a good time together.” Emanu-El’s past president, Joel Schwartz, adds: “Let’s just respect each other and learn more about the issues. All the things that come up that seem to be matters of life and death, we work through—and they get less important.”

Show Honor to Those Who Came Before You

When a temple is closed, “it’s like closing your parents’ home,” says Wilmark Studios stained-glass artist Mark Liebowitz of Pearl River, New York. “The change from the space-that-was to the space-to-be should be handled as thoughtfully as any other part of the process.”

To mark the day Congregation Beth Sholom closed and B’nai Yehuda Beth Sholom became one congregation, in June 1998, the entire Homewood, Illinois community joined together in a “Unity Day” celebration. People gathered at a shopping center three blocks from the Beth Sholom site and then walked to the building they would soon leave for the last time. Then the ceremony of “de-consecrating” the building began: The rabbi led the group in speaking aloud the liturgy she’d composed for the occasion, young people led the congregation in Hinei Mah Tov (“How Good It Is To Be Together”) and the elders reminisced about the people who had built the synagogue. The Jewish War Veterans left the sanctuary with the U.S. and Israeli flags. The past presidents marched out with the Torah scrolls, waiting under a chuppah just outside the synagogue door, and, on their way outside, took off the mezuzah and turned off the Eternal Light. The shofar was blown. Everyone walked back to their cars, the Torah holders changing after every block, and drove most of the way to B’nai Yehuda’s site.

Congregants then walked the eight blocks to reach their new B’nai Yehuda home, 100 people carrying the Torah scrolls en route. When they arrived, the shofar was blown again. The new congregation formed a huge circle. The past presidents of Beth Sholom placed their former Torah scrolls into the ark and affixed one of the Beth Sholom mezuzot. Next came the singing together of Mah Tovu and Hallel, in celebration of the sanctity of the day. “Then,” says Rabbi Dreyfus, “the temple officers signed the merger document with the entire community as witnesses, a state senator made a proclamation, and we all went outside and had a wonderful picnic.”

Marge Eiseman is an itinerant Jewish teacher and singer/songwriter, with a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies, and a little-used Bachelor’s Degree in Economics that came in handy for this story.


Union for Reform Judaism.