Last December, Rabbi David J. Fine of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood wrote a thoughtful and perceptive op ed in this newspaper about why the word merger, at least when applied to synagogues, seems somehow dirty, perhaps borderline pornographic. (It is, in fact, “a word that synagogue trustees often keep at a greater distance than fried pork chops,” he wrote.)
That automatic distaste is not only unhelpful, it’s also inaccurate, he continued then; in fact, some of our models, based on the last century’s understanding of affiliation, and also on post-World War II suburban demographics, simply are outdated.
If we are to flourish — perhaps to continue to flourish, perhaps to do so again — we are going to have to acknowledge change, accommodate it, and not see it as failure. Considering a merger does not mean that we’re not big enough alone, or strong enough, or interesting or compelling or affordable enough. Instead, it may present us with the chance to examine our assumptions, keep some, and discard others, he said.
Rabbi Fine is Conservative; the movement’s theology and worldview are firmly his own. But now, under his leadership, Temple Israel will be merging — or perhaps more accurately entering a strategic partnership — with Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Israel, which sold its synagogue and parsonage building in Maywood to share space, resources, and governance, among other things, with Temple Israel.
RCBI hired a rabbi, Jacob Lieberman, who also will be the assistant rabbi at the Ridgewood shul.
“We have been operating as Temple Israel; now we are going to emphasize the Jewish Community Center piece of it,” the shul’s president, Joshua Holden of Ridgewood, said.
Temple Israel has slightly more than 200 membership units, and RCBI has about 30. The two congregations will hold their own religious services, using their own liturgies, and then come together for kiddush. They will share the religious school, which already is part of a local consortium, as well as adult education and other programs, and their social action committees, which are very important to both shuls, have begun to work together already.
RCBI will be structured as a group within the umbrella that is the Jewish Community Center. “It will be a subsidiary organization, structured similarly to our men’s club and sisterhood, with their own budgets and board,” Mr. Holden said. “They will have one member on Temple Israel’s executive committee, two on the main shul board, and a seat on the school board. Temple Israel will do all the management.”
“It is a provisional merger, in the sense that we understand that merger is a term that people get nervous about, but it doesn’t have to be irrevocable,” Rabbi Fine said. “We will work together; at the end of the five years, we will have to revisit it, to decide to renew it on the same terms, to make a complete merger, or to decide to separate. Or we could separate earlier. There is nothing irrevocably invested. We tried to structure it financially so there is minimal risk to either congregation, and that eliminates the emotional hesitancy that goes along with a synagogue merger discussion.”
The Temple Israel part of the Jewish Community Center is not dropping its affiliation with the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and RCBI is not cutting off its relationship with the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, which is the movement’s umbrella organization. Because those organizations assess dues based on synagogue membership, “when new families join, they will check one of two boxes — one for each movement — just as you do when you register to vote,” Rabbi Fine said. It’s also analogous to the Center for Jewish History on 16th Street in Manhattan, an organization made up of autonomous but linked bodies. “In a sense, the landlord is renting space, but they are working together, with an overall organization.
“It’s a different approach,” he added. “It’s not letting go of the denominational ideologies, it’s an embrace of those ideologies, but still working together under the same organizational rubric — and under the same roof. It’s like what you see on college campuses, in the Hillel world. Separate services, and joint kiddushes and onegs. It allows us to maintain differences but still work together and pool resources.”
“It’s very exciting,” Mr. Holden said. “Our membership has been very enthusiastic about this. It’s about more than the financial aspect, and about keeping the numbers up. What’s much more exciting is how it’s enhancing the community.
“A few weeks ago, we had four simultaneous services. Tot Shabbat, Junior Congregation, the RCBI service, and the main service. They have helped us make minyans; we had an occasion recently where we had several members pass away, and it was hard to schedule all the shiva minyans. One of the RCBI members led one of the shiva minyans for one of our members.”
There are some theological differences, he conceded. “Anything they do religiously is according to their rules, in their designated space. They have their worship space and we have ours. We wouldn’t have an interfaith wedding, and we don’t recognize patrilineal descent, but if they were having a bar mitzvah for a patrilineal child and they were expecting a lot of guests, they would use the main sanctuary, and follow their rules.”
Kashrut is not an issue, he added; the congregation had kept kosher in its old building and would continue to do so in the new one.
Christine O’Donnell, the president of RCBI, said that although the model is new to this area, it is already working in other places, including Philadelphia’s Germantown Jewish Center. “We think it’s the best of both worlds,” she said. “Our Reconstructionist community has the benefit of our own clergy and services, but the benefit of being within a larger congregation for our social, education, and cultural needs. We will pay our own way, but there are economies of scale, and the maintenance of the physical plant has been taken off our plate.”
The congregation, which started out Conservative, had been in the Maywood building — which began its life as a church — since 1931, she said; it “transitioned over to Reconstructionist about 2000.” As the county’s only Reconstructionist shul, it drew from the entire area.
“Our goal is to grow Reconstructionism, and we feel that this gives us the best opportunity to do that,” Ms. O’Donnell said.
RCBI’s pulpit will be Jacob Lieberman’s first as a rabbi; he was ordained last month.
Rabbi Lieberman, who grew up in Irvine, California, and knew he wanted to be a rabbi since he was in his teens, has had connections to all of Judaism’s main liberal movements, so in many ways this arrangement is perfect for him.
“I grew up in a Reform congregation and then we moved to a Reconstructionist one, so I had both before I finished high school,” he said. “And then, as an undergraduate, I studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary, so I had a lot of access to the thought there.
“There is a strong connection between the Reconstructionist and Conservative movements,” he continued. “Mordecai Kaplan, the founding figure of the Reconstructionist movement, had smicha from the seminary. A lot of Reconstructionist rabbis have served at Conservative synagogues, and there is a lot of cooperation between them, so it is a natural fit in a lot of ways.”
But the two movements are far from identical. “Reconstructionism is an invigorating look at Jewish identity, Jewish community, and bringing expansive ideas to bear on our traditional texts, so when I study texts with some of the lenses that I have learned, they come alive in a way that is very meaningful for me,” Rabbi Lieberman said. Those lenses mainly provide context — historical, social, economic, and philosophical undergirding. “If I am looking at a rabbinic text, and I understand what was happening in the Roman Empire at the time, I have a broader context to understand some of the polemics,” he said. “It helps me to see the animosity between people who are being ruled and the rulers.”
The two movements look at the function of a rabbi as decision-maker differently too. Rabbi Lieberman sees his role as a facilitator, helping guide the community toward a shared decision, as the Reconstructionist worldview suggests, while Rabbi Fine is more of a mara d’atra, the decisor whose decision might be based on community input but is his and is final.
Like RCBI’s president, Ms. O’Donnell, Rabbi Lieberman sees the arrangement with Temple Israel as more of a strategic partnership than a merger. “We are Reconstructionist, and that is a strong identity,” he said. “We are looking to retain our identity and build a bigger and broader community. We will have our own unique services, and they will have theirs, and we will come together around some programming. It is my hope that we will collaborate around some children’s programming, family and adult education, and social action.”
Rabbi Lieberman, who graduated from Barnard College, is “to the best of my knowledge the first openly transgender graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College,” he said. That means that he knows about courage.
That courage will serve him well, he said.
“I am not afraid to go out into the community and meet all different kinds of people,” he said. “I will come with my Reconstructionist roots, and Rabbi Fine is a leader in the Conservative movement. We are all bringing a lot to the table, and I am excited about the synergy.”