Temple Emanuel discusses options for future


On Thursday, April 17, members of Temple Emanuel gathered to hear presentations on three possible futures for the congregation: continue as they are, merge with a small congregation or merge with a large congregation. Members are casting ballots for their preferred choice and those results are scheduled be revealed at the congregation’s May 4 meeting which includes the election of officers.

The conversations about the future of the congregation started as part of its long-range planning process in conjunction with the 50th anniversary celebration this past year. Last month, leaders from Temple Emanuel and Temple Israel unveiled one potential proposal to merge the two congregations. Temple Emanuel owns its own building and has an endowment. However, according to Dr. Laurie Reitman, president of the congregation, as the membership grows older, there are fewer children. She said that without new families with young children joining the congregation, the religious school enrollment has declined from 137 students in 2001 to 79 students this school year.

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“It is part of being fiscally responsible to look at the future,” Reitman said. “There is a high affiliation rate of Reform Jews in St. Louis and we had to ask ourselves where our new members would come from. It is not just about money, it is about a need to grow the congregation.”

There is a proposed deadline for the congregation to make its decision by mid-June in order to be able to effectively make plans for the religious school.

“Traditionally congregations begin enrollment in May for the following school year,” Reitman said. “If we are merging with another congregation or combining religious school programs, we need to be able to let families know; and there are issues of staffing, calendar and programming.”

Ken Cohen has been a member of Temple Emanuel for approximately 20 years. He presented the option of merging with another small congregation.

“I like small congregations,” Cohen said. “I’d prefer to stay independent if we can. Another solution is to try to combine some of our operations with another congregation.”

The precedent for this possibility was set three-and-a-half years ago when the congregation sought to provide better opportunities for their high school students. They combined forces with B’nai El Congregation and Congregation Kol Am to create one viable youth group: KABEEY (Kol Am B’nai El Emanuel Youth).

Jesse Abraham has been a member of the congregation for five years. Currently he serves as the board secretary and will be a trustee after the elections. He plans to continue his membership with Temple Emanuel no matter what the decision.

“It is not ‘my way or the highway’ for me,” Abraham said. “I am looking for the best opportunity for our congregation going forward. How do we proceed as a community?”

Abraham feels the best choice for his own family and what will be most successful for the congregation will be to combine with a larger congregation.

“We have an aging population and a high affiliation rate in the St. Louis area,” Abraham said. “We are over-synagogued in St. Louis: as a community we are supporting too many buildings.”

He concedes many of the members have no interest in joining with a larger congregation and he agrees with their concerns. On the other hand, Abraham understands first-hand some of the challenges in a smaller congregation. He has two children in the religious school which has been dealing with steadily declining enrollment and has needed to combine grades.

“I would like to have more kids in each class,” Abraham said. “I would like to see more people at our services and programs.”

Abraham feels the timing of combining with Temple Israel is “propitious.”

“The congregation is more stable financially, has plans to renovate their building and they will be doing a rabbinic search with Rabbi [Mark] Shook’s decision to retire in 2010,” Abraham said. “It is an opportunity to be part of a new organization from the ground up.”

He also cautions members not to look at the possibility as a takeover of Temple Emanuel.

“It is not us versus them if we merge with Temple Israel,” Abraham said. “We would become a significant part of a whole new entity and invigorate our congregation in a whole new way.”

The leadership of Temple Israel has been very gracious and interested in combining the two cultures and sensibilities to make everyone stronger, said Abraham.

“I understand that size is the preeminent concern for many people,” Abraham said. “I joined Temple Emanuel because of its size and the intimate nature of a small congregation. However, if we compromise on size, we can get so many other things.”

Claire Kaufman and her family are long time members of the Temple Emanuel.

Her husband Lee was part of the congregation’s first confirmation class. Their children grew up at the congregation and are now members of the congregation themselves and have their own children in the religious school. Kaufman is part of the committee looking at the stand-alone option.

“I have seen such an outpouring of enthusiasm in the discussions over the future,” Kaufman said. “Our new leadership is amazing and our new members are amazing. I think our new members working with our long-standing members put us in a beautiful place to revitalize the congregation.”

It is definitely a time of transition for the congregation as they decide what they want to look like in the next 50 years.

“There is a talented, passionate community at Temple Emanuel,” Reitman said. “Whatever happens going forward, we will make a success of it.”