Board votes end BSKI and Shaare Zedek merger talks

Rick Kodner (left), immediate past president of BSKI and his brother, Gary Kodner, immediate past president of Shaare Zedek.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

An effort to combine two of the area’s three Conservative congregations appears to have stalled this week with a vote of the synagogues’ boards which failed to muster the support necessary to proceed to the next stage.

“There were a lot of good questions asked by both boards,” said Rick Kodner, president of Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel. “I’ve just got to believe that we didn’t make the case.”

This week’s action deals a potentially fatal blow to a proposal to combine BSKI and Shaare Zedek Synagogue which have been in official talks over a possible merger since February. Those conversations were built on the efforts of a committee which began work in June 2009 to explore the feasibility of a possible union. In order to advance to the next phase, which would have shifted discussion to crafting the specifics of a merger plan for a full congregational vote, a two-thirds majority of each board was required.

Shaare Zedek’s board voted Monday night but the results were sealed until Tuesday’s balloting could be completed at BSKI. Neither congregation would publicly release individual ballot counts.

Gary Kodner, president of Shaare Zedek and brother of Rick, said the votes sent a strong signal.

“As far as the process is concerned, we made it very clear going into these votes that a ‘no’ vote meant to stop the merger assessment process and a ‘yes’ was a vote of confidence that we needed from our boards to take it to the membership and move forward,” he said. “We clearly are not moving forward and taking it to the membership.”

A letter is being drafted to congregants in both institutions informing them of the boards’ actions.

Gary said that further conversation was healthy and there was always the possibility of future discussions, perhaps involving other forms of collaboration. Still, he also felt it was important for both organizations to move on from this week’s votes so they could focus on working toward future objectives.

“We’ve been at this for 18 months now and it’s really important to accomplish some of the goals that we’ve set out to accomplish,” he said. “It’s hard, in my opinion, to stay in some sort of state of uncertainty or flux. You need to be moving forward. That was the purpose of bringing this to our boards now, to enable or disable us to move forward.”

Rick Kodner said that while the board votes were a setback, he still thought the idea could remain in play.

I won’t say that it’s dead in the water,” he said, noting that he’d spoken to other interest parties after the vote. “We had a post-mortem meeting last night and we plan to probably bring this back to the floor of the boards within the next two months with some more information.”

He said a meeting was planned for January to discuss any future moves that might be taken on the part of the steering committee.

Personally, he said he felt that the congregations’ full membership had been robbed of a valuable opportunity to decide on a full-fledged merger proposal.

“I think that the process that we went through was very deliberate, very transparent and that it should have been allowed to continue and let the congregations make the decision,” he said. “At that point, we would have done all that we could do. I feel like there’s still more.”

“But time will tell on that,” he added. “Sometimes when things happen, people lose momentum and lose steam.”

The brothers said that the discussions had been educational for both instititutions.

“The best thing to come out of this is that we both wanted to learn more about our own synagogues. We’ve learned our shortcomings. We’ve learned our strengths,” said Rick. “As we said at the outset of this whole thing, we’re going to emerge two stronger synagogues even if we don’t choose to go on because now we know where we’ve got to go to strengthen our numbers.”

Gary said the venture had been similar in tone to a strategic planning effort.

“We’ve learned a lot by this shared community process,” he said. “I think we are prepared to take on real structural and visionary changes we need to succeed with the next generation because that’s really what this process has been about.”

Demographic changes and the realities of a shrinking Jewish community have stirred a few merger talks in the area in recent years. Two Orthodox shuls, Shaarei Chesed and Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol joined in 2006 while Temple Israel has engaged in merger conversations both with Temple Emanuel in 2008 and United Hebrew Congregation earlier this year. Neither of those resulted in a union.

The Kodners both felt the process had been a valuable one.

“You put a lot of heart and soul and time and effort into something and to have it stop is always a letdown,” said Gary. “But I’m relieved too because I think that we can move forward with strength. The feeling is that the end of something is the beginning of something else.”