Temple Beth Haverim in Mahwah marked its 36th anniversary last week, but its leaders are not yet sure if they will mark the Reform shul’s 37th next year or the first anniversary of a new merged synagogue.
On July 1, Beth Haverim will merge its ’78 member-families with approximately 130 families from the Reform Temple of Suffern-Shir Shalom, becoming Beth Haverim-Shir Shalom. The new shul will meet in Beth Haverim’s building in Mahwah while the Shir Shalom building in Suffern, N.Y., will be sold. Proceeds will go to the new entity, which will also receive the Suffern temple’s three Torah scrolls and collection of prayerbooks.
Shir Shalom, one of five Reform synagogues in New York’s Rockland County, also just marked its 36th year. Founded in 1971 with 10 families, it served almost 300 at its height, pulling in members from Rockland and Orange counties. But recently it has seen its membership fall from ’85 families to 130.
"It was at a point where we figured the best thing to do was to find a merger partner," said Shir Shalom president Bill Pearlman, who added that the shul’s leadership began its search in the spring of ‘006.
Although it is across a state line, Beth Haverim is only four and a half miles away from Shir Shalom and has much in common, Pearlman said. For the last five years the two synagogues have run a joint post-b’nai mitzvah high school class that draws roughly 70 kids from Beth Haverim and ‘0 from Shir Shalom.
"This has been a very, very painful process but a positive process," Pearlman said. "This is a really spectacular combination. It’s going to be a beautiful synagogue for many years to come."
Pearlman expects about 70 of the Rockland shul’s families to make the switch to Mahwah. Because Shir Shalom has a lower dues rate, those families’ dues will be 75 percent of the Beth Haverim rate for two years.
The Mahwah shul’s Rabbi Joel Mosbacher recently signed an extension to his contract through ‘016. Shir Shalom’s Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker will work part time with Mosbacher for one year before leaving the temple.
Calls to Dunsker were not returned before press time, but earlier this month she told the Rockland Jewish Reporter, which is affiliated with this newspaper, "[T]o close our doors is terribly sad. People were prepared to go to Mahwah not eager, maybe, but prepared."
"She’ll be a partner with me and with [Beth Haverim] Cantor [David] Perper in leading the congregation," Mosbacher said. "She’ll be involved in all aspects of our congregational life."
Although Beth Haverim is not the first area shul in recent years to merge with another, neither its nor Shir Shalom’s leaders believe the merger resulted from shrinking numbers in the Reform movement or a falling away from Judaism. Rather, it is a result of the local population’s inability to support five Reform shuls.
"It’s indicative within the demographics of Rockland County, N.Y. at this point," said Pearlman. "Some changes have to be made in general with the structure of the temple system in Rockland. Mergers are the only thing going to be effective."
Mosbacher added, "I don’t think this represents anything more than two individual congregations coming together. There have been mergers in synagogue life for a long time."
Art Weber, president of Beth Haverim, said most of the shul is excited for the merger, although, he admitted, it may be "somewhat traumatic" for older members.
Beth Haverim’s circle of founding members, like Shir Shalom’s, was small but dedicated. An October 1970 advertisement in a local newspaper attracted a handful of families looking to create a new Reform synagogue in Mahwah. In 1971, ” members adopted a constitution, and in August 1976 the shul officially became Beth Haverim.
"In any kind of merger there are always going to be differences in people," he said. "We seem to be a good match [though]. We don’t anticipate anything more than a bump in the road."
Shir Shalom’s members who make the move will adjust to the new community, Pearlman continued. Pearlman saw his oldest son, Andrew, now ‘0, become a bar mitzvah at Shir Shalom. But his 9-year-old son, Zachary, will be bar mitzvahed at the new temple.
"The family is the same but the venue will be different," Pearlman said. "There will be new family added."