BSKI, Shaare Zedek discuss potential merger

ELLEN FUTTERMAN and MIKE SHERWIN

Two of St. Louis’ three area Conservative congregations are exploring a possible merger, according to the presidents of both Shaare Zedek Synagogue and Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel.

Gary Kodner, President of the Board of Shaare Zedek in University City, said his synagogue and BSKI in Richmond Heights convened a 14-member “joint assessment committee,” comprising seven people from each synagogue, which met several times from June to November to evaluate the situation and do a feasibility study.

“Last week we went before the boards of both synagogues to have them vote yes or no as to whether we should continue this process,” said Kodner, “and the decision from both is that we should. So we have sent out letters to members of both congregations, explaining everything that has transpired thus far and what the next steps should be.”

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Gary Kodner (who is also a Trustee of the St. Louis Jewish Light) and his brother, Rick Kodner, who is President of the Board of BSKI, each pointed out that a recommendation to merge was not put before the boards. That decision would ultimately be brought before the members of both congregations if and when a “comprehensive negotiation process” results in a recommendation for a merger.

“We have a process in place and we will honor it,” said Gary Kodner.

“We wanted this to be completely transparent, completely above board,” Rick Kodner added.

The letter sent to all congregants at both synagogues outlined some of the reasons for the merger discussion, including shrinking numbers and financial constraints. “Our objectives go beyond a financial solution,” the letter states. “It is an opportunity to create a greater community, capable of achieving more collaboration than competing as separate entities.

“This is an opportunity to look forward. A chance to consider the possibilities of what we can achieve, and how we can sustain what we have if we allow ourselves to partner with our neighbors.”

“The fact is that we both share almost identical demographics,” Rick Kodner said. Shaare Zedek currently has 358 families while BSKI has 330. “And we’re only two miles apart,” he added. St. Louis’ other Conservative congregation is B’nai Amoona in Creve Coeur.

However, both congregation presidents say a merger is by no means a done deal.

“I told both boards that I didn’t become president to merge with another synagogue,” Rick Kodner said. “But at the same time, we live in a time and a place where we have to consider that these two synagogues may have to merge at some point, whether it’s five years down the road, 10 years or beyond. We’re both at a place of strength now, and I think it’s better to start discussions now rather than wait for a time when either of us is in trouble.”

Rabbi Mark Fasman of Shaare Zedek said he had mixed feelings about a possible merger. “On the one hand, it would irresponsible not to research this possibility. On the other hand, my emotional response is an entirely different matter,” he said.

“As rabbi I am responsible for the name of this congregation and the possibility of losing that name is a little troubling and makes me sad. I don’t have the same relationship with the name and the institution as people who are sixth generation, but I have been here eight and a half years and feel deeply connected to this institution. It’s a large part of my identity and any shift in the nature of the institution affects me professionally and personally.”

BSKI Rabbi Mordecai Miller said he is taking a hands-off approach. “I see my role as primarily a resource. I am focused on serving my congregation in the best way possible,” he said.

Miller said he is not drawing conclusions at this point. “Right now the discussion is not for (or against) a merger. Right now is about gathering information and assessing the impact for both congregations as realistically as possible.”

Gary Kodner said that no discussion has taken place on which building would house both congregations if, in fact, a merger was agreed upon. “We will convene a qualified panel of experts in architecture, building construction, business and the like to study the matter and recommend to us whether we should keep one building over the other and renovate, or go to a new site altogether. That way an informed decision can be made.”

When asked about the emotional strains of working with his brother on a possible merger, Gary Kodner said, “Anytime two congregations get together there is an automatic concern or mistrust that one congregation might be trying to gain the upper hand or get a better deal. With the two of us being brothers, we have a greater level of trust than two random presidents in any other situation.”

Rick Kodner said over the next year committees will form — composed of both BSKI and Shaare Zedek members — to further discuss the implications and desired outcomes of a merger on a variety of aspects of congregational life. He noted that the committees would create a report for each congregation to review and comment on.

“The process we are about to embark on is the negotiation phase,” Gary Kodner said. “If we do not feel it is a good fit, then we will part ways. If we feel there is a fit and rationale to keep talking, we will advance to the decision phase and if we get through that, to the implementation phase.”