Temple Israel, Shaare Emeth vote to explore possible merger

Congregation Shaare Emeth and Congregation Temple Israel

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

The boards of trustees at Temple Israel and Shaare Emeth voted Tuesday night to explore a possible merger between the two congregations.

The memberships of both Reform congregations were informed of the decision through an email Wednesday morning, which was followed with a mailed letter. 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, all said that rather than wait until either congregation faced problems, such as financial setbacks or shrinking 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. “We are both coming at this from positions of stability and strength in both membership and financially. Rather than find ourselves down the road in a position of not being so strong, we decided to explore a new way of creating a Jewish community from equal positions of strength.”

Rabbi Amy Feder, Temple Israel’s senior rabbi, stressed that size wasn’t a consideration in a potential merger, although they had looked at how other large congregations across the country structure themselves. “We are talking about redefining what a congregation or community can look like,” she said. “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 a 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.

“We came to a meeting of the minds,” said Greg Yawitz, first vice president of Shaare Emeth. “The ability of clergy from both entities to work together was gelling, and lay leadership from both were working well together. We realized we couldn’t go any farther without asking key questions and to do that we needed to involve a greater part of our respective communities.”

Both congregations are hosting town hall meetings in the coming weeks open to their congregants. Members can attend their own congregation’s meetings to learn more about the process and become involved.

In addition, 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.

Both Levy and Yawitz said they knew of no reason legally why they couldn’t proceed with a possible merger if both congregations agreed to it. The two also said that any final decision would require approval from both congregations, though they were not sure if that meant a simple majority from each or more.

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.

Both Bennett and Feder agreed 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, during the summer.