Tl, Shaare Emeth end merger talks

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Discussions aimed at unifying two of the area’s largest Reform synagogues have come to a close with both Congregation Shaare Emeth and Temple Israel deciding to remain separate institutions.

“The dialogue between clergy, lay leadership and membership from both congregations has been exciting, productive and educational,” read a letter to Temple Israel congregants from TI president JoAnne Levy. “However both congregations have concluded that the best way to create and sustain a dynamic, engaging community is to pursue our independent paths that accentuate the respective strengths of each congregation.”

The announcement last week came after a vote of both boards, which ended roughly a year of conversations between the two institutions. Shaare Emeth has about 1,750 families, Temple Israel about 950. 

“It had just been something I’d been thinking about before I became president,” said Joe Pereles, president of Shaare Emeth. “There were a lot of congregations in West County. Does it make sense to have, when we started, six? Now we’re down to five.”

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Pereles said the process had been a rewarding one that proved educational for both sides.

“We learned more about Temple Israel and their opportunities and a lot about our strengths as well at Shaare Emeth,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that we weren’t able to work things out and take the opportunity to our congregants vote on it but we felt that we weren’t going to force the issue. We had to both be confident that what we were taking had to be saleable and when we realized that it wouldn’t work, we mutually agreed that it was time to terminate discussion.”

He said congregants had generally responded positively to the talks.

“I think they appreciated the fact that it was a well thought out process, nothing that’s a fait accompli,” he said. “If I had to do it over again, I would do it. I think it’s an important discussion to have.”

Rabbi Amy Feder of Temple Israel agreed.

I’m glad we went through it,” she said. “But in the end, I think we are really agreed that as exciting as it was to talk to each other and share ideas, we still wanted to continue on our independent paths.”

She said leadership in both congregations had been tempted by the possibilities of pooling resources and creating new options for Jewish life in St. Louis but ultimately each synagogue found it had a strong institutional identity.

“That’s what’s kept us both going for more than 125 years,” she said. “Moving into the future I think we also have different visions of what needs to be done to address the needs of the Jewish community.”

She said that recent roof repairs to TI’s sanctuary had provided an opportunity for introspection as the congregation was forced to hold services at the Jewish Community Center.

“What that did was allow us to be a community outside of our comfort zone,” she said. “The result was incredibly positive and people felt so good about who they were as a congregation, realizing that we are a community which brings so much meaning and value to whatever space we’re in.”

The talks with Shaare Emeth are not the first dialogue TI has opened in pursuit of a potential joining. In 2008, the congregation examined a possible merger with Temple Emanuel. Two years later, it looked at a similar linkage with United Hebrew. Neither conversation resulted in a union however.

Feder said the talks were an indication of the temple’s openness to new ways of viewing congregational life.

“That’s why we’ve been willing to say on several occasions that if it is possible that going forward with a partner might make it easier and better for us to continue as a congregation than we should do it,” she said. 

However, Feder said she did not see any other congregations as potential merger partners in the near future. She said the temple was always open to possibilities however.

The last decade has witnessed two other synagogue mergers in the area, a 2006 joining of two Orthodox congregations to form the U.City Shul and the recent creation of Kol Rinah, a new Conservative institution formed from Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel and Shaare Zedek Synagogue.

Earlier this year, Reform temple B’nai El joined in a partnership with Shaare Emeth after financial difficulties forced the former institution to put its campus up for sale. Neither considers the arrangement a merger but B’nai El congregants have now become joint members of both synagogues.

Meanwhile, Kol Am, a West County Reform institution was forced to close its doors altogether in 2011 due to financial pressures.

Feder said that finances weren’t the driving factor in TI’s decision to hold talks, adding that the temple’s budget was in balance.

“That’s why we thought this would be such an exciting time to say, ‘Let’s have these discussions while we are doing it from a position of strength and not from a position of weakness where we might be concerned about our future,’” she said.

Likewise, Pereles said Shaare Emeth was in good stead financially.

“We weren’t in the market to merge just to merge,” he said. “We were looking at what would be best for our congregation and in this case Temple Israel to see if the combination would create something that would be stronger, more vibrant and good for the community.”

Rabbi James Bennett of Shaare Emeth said that he didn’t think any particular issue or set of issues led to the closure of talks. It was simply a matter of “exploring the realm of the possible.”

“We’re neighbors. We’re friends,” said Bennett. “I am certain that we will work together to better the community in many ways and there will be many efforts over the coming years to work in collaboration in joint projects.”