Temple Israel, United Hebrew end merger talks

Temple Israel and United Hebrew

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

The possibility of a merger that could have created the largest Reform congregation in the St. Louis area appears to have come to an end a little over a month after it began.

“After deliberation and for a variety of reasons, United Hebrew Congregation and Congregation Temple Israel have mutually and amicably agreed to end discussions at this time concerning any potential merger between their two congregations,” read a statement on Temple Israel’s website. “Both congregations remain open to continued discussions regarding collaboration between them and with other St. Louis Jewish congregations and organizations.”

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A similar statement was released via email from United Hebrew Congregation.

“Timing is everything and I think the statement says it all,” said Dr. David Weinstein, president of Temple Israel.

Ed Becker, president of United Hebrew, struck a similar tone.

“We’re both on the same page with our comments,” he said. “The timing wasn’t what we thought it was and we look forward to future collaboration.”

Discussions on the merger idea were announced in late October as part of a wider ranging conversation on a variety of potential joint efforts. Both congregations were prompted to consider the idea by a Federation-sponsored conference on community collaboration led by Hayim Herring, a visiting rabbi from the Herring Consulting Network.

Leadership from TI and UH had said they were looking at joining as a way of reacting to demographic changes in the Jewish community and providing better programming and services. A merger would have created a congregation of about 2,200 families.

Temple Israel also engaged in similar talks in 2008 with Temple Emanuel but no merger took place. In 2006, two Orthodox shuls Shaarei Chesed and Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol, announced they would combine. Two local Conservative congregations, Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel and Shaare Zedek Synagogue have been exploring the possibility of joining since June of last year.

“The spirit of cooperation between the two congregations is evident and I’m confident it will be expressed in constructive ways,” said Rabbi Howard Kaplansky, senior rabbi of United Hebrew. “Both congregations’ membership are committed to what is best for each congregation and that requires study and exploration.”

Kaplansky said he felt the decisions made were part of a responsible planning process on the part of both synagogues and that he looked forward to future cooperative efforts. Kaplansky will leave his position to assume the title of rabbi emeritus next summer. He will be succeeded by Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg, who was reportedly traveling in Israel and could not be reached for comment.

Rabbi Amy Feder of Temple Israel said she felt the move would not affect the progress of either congregation.

“It was the right decision and there were a number of different reasons that made the congregational leadership decide to take this path, but both Temple Israel and UH are really moving in exciting new directions,” she said. “If there are new opportunities for collaboration in the future, we will explore them but right now we’re all pretty happy to be on our own ground and moving forward in our own direction.”

Becker said that strategic planning at UH had been happening since this spring and would continue. He noted that there were already extensive collaborative efforts in place in the Reform community in such areas as youth and senior programming.

“What we’re going to do in the next couple of months is finish our plan and see what that committee recommends in terms of collaboration,” he said. “Once the board approves it and the members have input then we can begin to implement the strategies in that long-range plan. It will include collaboration.”

Weinstein said that Temple Israel was not in merger conversations with any other synagogue but he said that merger was a realistic possibility for any congregation to consider.

“Hopefully, our discussions with United Hebrew will stimulate discussions in the community that will benefit the entire St. Louis Jewish community,” he said.

He said that the merger possibility had always been only one part of a larger conversation.

“The original press release that we put out said that the two congregations are embarking on a process of discussion openly and transparently about collaboration that may ultimately end up in merger,” he said. “For the merger part, the timing is wrong so we’re backing off of it and we’ll be speaking about collaboration not only with each other but also in the greater Jewish community.”

Weinstein struck a hopeful note, noting that other organizations might see what occurred as a good model.

“The bottom line is that we’re looking to do something positive and visionary and proactive for our congregation and the Jewish community,” he said. “The discussions that we have stimulated are positive for everybody. If it stimulates other congregations and organizations to look at what we’re doing and to reevaluate where they are and what their opportunities are, then that is a very positive outcome.”

Reaction seemed positive among area Reform rabbis. Jeffrey Stiffman, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shaare Emeth, said pragmatism and economics may make more such conversations a reality in the future.

“A lot of times, talks might start with merger but there’s the emotional element of people who feel tied to their congregation, their rabbi, their history and traditions but still they would like to see if there are ways the congregations can cooperate, save costs and improve,” he said.

Stiffman said that the outcome shows that the community needs a variety of congregations to serve different needs but joint efforts are still possible.

“I know that in some communities for example, the congregations and the educational agencies are sometimes able to put together packages to bring in top teachers to the community who would have almost a full-time job by doing work for three or four congregations at the same time,” he said. “Everybody saves money and it works out well.”

Rabbi Susan Talve of Central Reform Congregation said she trusted the temples to make the right decision for themselves and the community.

“We’re excited about the leadership in both congregations,” she said. “Anytime the Jewish community is talking about sharing resources and working together, everybody benefits.”

At least one congregant is satisfied with the way things turned out. Marvyn Yavitz, who attends United Hebrew, said he felt that facilities issues and differences among the two temple’s populations would have made the joining undesirable.

“I prefer collaboration,” said the 88-year-old Chesterfield resident. “As far as I’m concerned I’m very happy the way this is and I’m glad they turned this down. I wouldn’t like a merger.”