Merger talks end between Shaare Zedek and BSKI

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 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.”

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

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 14-member committee which began work in June 2009 to explore the feasibility of a 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 last Monday night but the results were sealed until the next day’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 was 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 interested parties after the balloting. “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 10-member 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.”

Congregant reaction was mixed. Longtime Shaare Zedek congregant Marvin Lerner said he worried that the end of the talks mean the congregation could face hard financial decisions, perhaps even a need to cut programming.

“I was disappointed,” he said. “What it means is that the congregation just has to work that much harder to accomplish its financial goals.”

Harlie Frankel, a Richmond Heights resident and BSKI congregant for a quarter century said that congregational history wasn’t as important to him as it might have been to some others. He was just concerned about having somewhere to worship and feel comfortable. He felt the conversations had been interesting to watch.

“I look at the information that they presented to me and say ‘Well, if we can’t afford it we’ve got to do something,'” he said.

Sydney Farber, a member of both the general and executive boards at Shaare Zedek, said she was glad the measure failed. As far as she’s concerned, the matter is now closed and the discussions are over.

“They weren’t taking a vote on whether to merge,” she said. “They were taking a vote on whether to continue discussion of it and have further committees. That’s what failed.”

A member of the shul for eight years, she said she applauded the hard work of merger proponents but felt the move was not an effective way to chart the synagogue’s future course.

“I thought it was an instant fix, not an overall long-term fix,” she said. “I just didn’t see it as a long-term thing that was going to help us.”

She said Shaare Zedek had shown a great deal of warmth and generosity towards her and she didn’t want to see it join with another institution.

“It seemed to be all talk of money and not talk about people and emotions,” she said.

The Creve Coeur resident recalled that when another member told her she was voting on emotion, she replied that feelings did play a role in her eventual choice. However, she didn’t consider it a negative. Farber said many people had a strong attachment to the institution and didn’t wish to join a new one.

“‘What can I say? That’s how I vote,'” she remembers responding.

The synagogues are not alone in exploring the idea of merger. Demographic changes and the realities of a shrinking Jewish community have stirred a few such 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 said that the discussions had been educational for both institutions.

“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.”

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.”