Change can be frightening, but it often is necessary, and sometimes it can lead to great opportunity.
The demographics of Rockland County are changing. That is a clear truth. The Reform synagogues that flourished in the third quarter of the last century are struggling now. But instead of despairing, they are regrouping.
In January, Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack and Temple Beth El in Spring Valley, which are about a 15-minute car ride apart, agreed to merge. The new Reform Temple of Rockland will be the fruit of that new union.
“Temple Beth Torah was founded 50 years ago,” its president, Allen Fetterman of West Nyack, said. “It’s interesting that this is happening now.”
The synagogue’s membership peaked at about 400 families; now it has a still respectable 270. “But we realized a few years ago that the trend was going to continue, and we needed to look at some plans if we were going to continue,” Mr. Fetterman said. “About a year ago, Beth El came to that same realization – that they were facing having to close their doors if they didn’t do something.”
Temple Beth El, chartered in 1947, has about 300 members, and is the county’s biggest Reform synagogue.
One of the things representatives of both shuls did was talk to each other.
“We realized pretty quickly that the synagogues were pretty similar in many ways, including ritually, in the types of members both have,” said Mr. Fetterman, who also is a member of the joint consolidation committee. We basically got along.
“We were able to park our egos at the door, and the process evolved.”
The new synagogue is waiting for approval from the county’s supreme court. Approval could take a few months, Mr. Fetterman said.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” he added. “Six active committees are meeting regularly. “We already have begun monthly joint Shabbat evening services. In the near future, all Friday and Saturday services will be held in one building. In the not-so-distant future, all Shabbat services will be in the Upper Nyack building.
“Our goal is for the merged entity to find a neutral location somewhere such as Nanuet, in the center of the county. Our assumption at this point is that the Spring Valley building will sell more quickly, and for a great amount, so the assumption is that we will put that building up for sale sooner rather than later.
“But that is a decision that can be made only by the new governing board of the Reform Temple of Rockland.
“There’s a lot of work ahead of us,” he repeated. “We have retained a facilitator, who helps nonprofit organizations merge or consolidate. She will help us with the process.
“It will take some time, but I’m very optimistic. We have moved very quickly, because the two groups have very few disagreements at any level, even when you get down to nitty-gritty details.”
Mr. Fetterman optimism grows out of the love he holds for the shul to which he has belonged since 1974, and which he has served on the board, as treasurer, and as president for many years, not all of them consecutive.
“The reason I chose Beth Torah isn’t as important as why I stayed with it,” he said. “I grew up in the Bronx, and after my bar mitzvah I washed my hands of the whole thing. But when we were a young married couple, with one child and one on the way, we felt a need to join a synagogue. I felt comfortable there.
“I stayed because Temple Beth Torah has always prided itself on being forward-looking, welcoming to everybody, from all walks of life, all types of people.” Not only was its programming innovative, “we made lifelong friends, people who joined when we did,” he said.
“Rockland County had – and still has – the largest proportion of Jewish people anywhere in the world outside Israel,” he said. “About a third of the county’s population is Jewish.”
He hopes that at least some of those families will come join him at the new Reform Temple of Rockland. “We have a chance to be part of Jewish history in Rockland County, and more importantly, to keep Reform Judaism alive in the county,” Mr. Fetterman said.