Reactions abound to Reform merger talks

Congregation Shaare Emeth and Congregation Temple Israel

By Ellen Futterman, Editor And Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

The possible merger of Temple Israel and Shaare Emeth announced last week is cause for excitement, with some trepidation, say some members of the two Reform temples.

But even those with reservations don’t want to stop the town hall-style meetings to learn more about the merger scheduled to get underway in the coming months.    

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“It’s exciting, and it’s scary,” said Ken Levine, a 10-year member of Shaare Emeth who will become a board member in May. “It’s change, but that’s what the Reform movement is all about.”

But, he added, “we want to keep our culture and our history alive. There are a tremendous amount of hurdles ahead.”

According to the Union for Reform Judaism, Temple Israel has 960 member families and Shaare Emeth has 1,667. Merging the two synagogues would result in one of the largest Reform congregations in the country. Currently, the largest Reform congregation in the United States is, coincidentally, Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Mich. with 3,300 member families.

In a joint interview with the senior rabbis and lay leaders of both synagogues soon after a possible merger was announced April 17, all said rather than wait until either congregation faced financial problems or declining membership, they decided to work together to consider a new model to better serve their congregants and potential congregants.

“We are very much approaching this as equal partners,” said JoAnne Levy, president of the board at Temple Israel. Added TI’s Rabbi Amy Feder, “We are talking about redefining what a congregation or community can look like. We don’t see this as one giant congregation but something where we are creating a community of communities where people can find their way into Judaism through a number of different pathways.”

Both she and Shaare Emeth Rabbi James Bennett said the hope would be to build more meaningful Jewish life around relationships within a merged synagogue, where people with similar interests and needs – be it young families, empty nesters, youth, those who don’t want to belong to a traditional synagogue life but desire a spiritual connection – could each be served within the context of a larger entity.

“We have a vision of a better future made possible by leveraging the resources of two healthy congregations,” said Bennett. “Our goal would be to come up with a new model of synagogue life that will better serve the needs of the community and create a better Jewish future.”

They said a steering committee comprising lay leadership and clergy began conversations about a possible merger in earnest last fall. While no plans are definite, the two congregations have proposed a three-phase due diligence process to bring the two entities together on an equal basis.

In addition to both congregations hosting town hall meetings, a number of exploratory committees will be formed with representatives from both congregations. Among the various aspects they will consider are youth, education and engagement; facilities and properties; worship and life cycle events; leadership and staff; governance and name.

As announced last month, plans for a collaborative between B’nai El and Shaare Emeth, which will be based at Shaare Emeth, are still moving forward, even as discussions between Temple Israel and Shaare Emeth progress. The new B’nai El will be dedicated to helping older adults create opportunities for learning, engagement and growth, explained Rabbi James Bennett of Shaare Emeth.

He noted that B’nai El, Shaare Emeth and Temple Israel have an association that dates back to 1865, when B’nai El was first formed. He explained that two years later, in 1867, some members of B’nai El broke off to create Shaare Emeth. Then, almost 25 years later, a group of congregants from Shaare Emeth formed Temple Israel. “There is an intriguing symmetry and coming full circle of reuniting these three congregations if this union should take place,” he said.

Synagogues across the nation have been sorting through the twin difficulties of expensive infrastructure and an aging, declining membership in recent years and the St. Louis area has been no exception. In 2011, financial woes drove Congregation Kol Am, a West County Reform institution, to close down less than five years after dedicating its new building. Meanwhile, two Conservative shuls, Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel and Shaare Zedek Synagogue, are in the process of joining together after an overwhelming vote of support in November.

Members at both TI and Shaare Emeth say they want to keep the qualities they like about their congregations while being open to new opportunities and interests that a merger may bring. At the same time, some are concerned about losing that intimacy and special quality they find in their congregation that has been their home for years; in some cases, for generations.

“I see a multiplicity of worship styles available,” said Cary Mogerman, a lifelong member and past president of Temple Israel. “There are lots of ways to come to temple . . . I hope we can preserve the variety of worship styles both congregations have had.”

Change of this scale, which also will affect each congregant, can be traumatic, several members said. That’s why the process of creating and adapting to the changes ahead has to be carefully planned and carried out.

“I believe in the big picture,” said Jan Nykin, a lifelong member of Temple Israel. “My hope is we can look beyond our differences. I want all people to feel they have a place…I want to make sure we care for each person’s ego.”

Like Shaare Emeth’s Levine, each person from the two congregations contacted emphasized that accepting change to meet the times was an essential part of the way they see Reform Judaism.

“Change is always difficult,” said David Weinstein, immediate past president of Temple Israel. “Our faith has always embraced change.”

Weinstein, also a lifelong Temple Israel member, said two strong congregations joining forces at the appropriate time could be just the right move. “If we pool our resources, not just our finances and our clergy and our programs, we can create things that nobody else has for this region,” he said.

Marcia Oberdorfer, a lifelong member of Shaare Emeth, agreed, adding that a larger congregation would be able to offer many different ways for members to worship, work together for the Jewish community and do social outreach activities for the larger St. Louis community.

Both rabbis Bennett and Feder noted that it was too soon to discuss clerical structuring. “It’s important to go into these conversations with a full understanding that there are four rabbis and a cantor who are all valued,” Bennett said. “A shared enterprise or merger would require at least that number of clergy to adequately serve the Jewish needs of its members.

“It would be premature to discuss clergy relationships other than to say that we all like each other and are excited about the possibility of working together and creating this new institution that will be more effective and exciting for Jewish growth and engagement.”

Added Feder: “All four rabbis have not only been in these discussion since the very beginning but have been the leaders of these discussions. What we are committed to is knowing all of us can work together and we’re excited about working together and perhaps finding a new model of a rabbinical structure that would give us all opportunities to do the work we love most and excel at. It may not be the traditional model of having a senior rabbi and associates. Rather, we all see ourselves as leaders in our own ways and want to see how we can work together to better serve our communities.”

While no dates were specifically cited, Levy said all involved were committed to “moving this as expeditiously as possible while still being very thorough and very thoughtful in our information view, communications and planning.” She said they were tentatively hoping to have the first phase of the process, which includes hearing from congregants and learning preliminary results from the various committees, completed by the end of the summer.