From the beginning, both of them had the feeling it was going to be a good shidduch. And so, despite covid, they spent last year dating. Things got better between them at every date. They schmoozed, they danced with each other and learned each other’s steps. They got to know each other well.
On July 1, they got married.
You were thinking this is about a boy and girl tying the knot? No, this is about the joining of two of Rockland County’s venerable Conservative synagogues: Montebello Jewish Center and Nanuet Hebrew Center have come together to form one bigger, stronger Conservative synagogue. It is called Shir Shalom. In English, that’s Song of Peace.
According to Paul Kurland, who was the rabbi of the Nanuet Hebrew Center and now holds that position at Shir Shalom, it was a merger both congregations had wanted to pursue for some time. “Many other congregations in the county have been looking for partners,” he said. “We realized that us doing so was one way we could break down some of the silos that had grown up among all of us and find ways to work together in a way that better served both congregations.”
The drive to merge began last spring, when the shuls combined their two Hebrew schools into a new school called Makom, the Place. “It proved to us we could work together,” Frederick Robinovitz said. Mr. Robinovitz, who lives in Montebello and was president of the pre-merger Montebello Jewish Center, will be president of Shir Shalom next year.
Soon after Makom was created, the presidents of the two congregations entered into conversations about taking the shidduch further, consolidating and merging all parts of the two synagogues. By the end of August 2020, they had an outline of an agreement. The details then had to be negotiated between the boards of trustees and members of each shul.
According to Mr. Robinovitz, the heavy lifting started in September. Over the next months, details were worked out. The financial, religious, legal, and membership engagement committees hammered out what differences remained. By July 1, when New York State declared that the two congregations could merge legally, everything that could be finalized was finalized. For at least the next year, all office and custodial staff will remain in their positions. In addition to Rabbi Kurland, Barry Kanarek, the Nanuet Hebrew Center’s longtime cantor, will remain on staff, along with the center’s part-time Hebrew school principal and its youth leader.
The physical merger of the two communities comes next. The new community’s steering committee, made up of members who came from both synagogues, decided to sell the MJC building, which is in the western part of Rockland County. The NHC building, which despite its name is in in New City, is more centrally located in the county. It will be Shir Shalom’s home.
The synagogue’s leaders hope that most, if not all, of MJC’s members will be willing to drive a little farther for services than before, and that NHC’s members will be comfortable with the changes being made to their familiar old building.
Over the next few months, everything from Montebello, including memorial plaques, its cornerstone, its Torah scrolls, including the one rescued from the Holocaust, and the rest of its ceremonial objects and memorabilia, as well as its furniture and office equipment, will move to Shir Shalom.
Shir Shalom might look like Nanuet Hebrew Center now, but that will change once the renovations begin in earnest. Even before the first Saturday morning services on July 1, some basic changes meant to make the former MJC congregants feel at home had been made. Two of the big chairs and Torah stands that once graced the bimah at MJC had been put in place on the new bimah.
Decisions about which Torah scrolls to keep — between them the two synagogues have 11 kosher sifrei Torah — and which ones to donate will be made by a subcommittee. MJC’s stained glass windows will be coming over to Shir Shalom. They will be placed in lighted frames that will hang from the walls of the sanctuary and will blend in with NHC’s. “Prayer books are coming over as well,” Rabbi Kurland said. “The ritual committee has already noted that most are the same.
At the end of the process, the room won’t look like NHC or MJC but it will look like Shir Shalom,” Rabbi Kurland said with a laugh. “You will see some of the mother and some of the father in the new child.”
The physical renovation to the building will take longer. Rabbi Kurland spoke of the vision members of Shir Shalom have of a sanctuary that is not configured in the standard audience seating typical of many synagogues, but is instead in a U shape that they believe will provide more of a sense of community.
The money for the renovation will come in part from the sale of the MJC building. “The remainder will go into an endowment fund that will make the new congregation financially stable for generations to come,” Mr. Robinovitz said. “This will be good for Conservative Judaism in Rockland County.
“It’s a little sad,” he added. “MJC was a great congregation located in a great facility. But having a membership of only 106 families is not something that’s sustainable.” It was inevitable that a change had to be made. The new congregation will have more than 305 member families if everyone from both MJC and NHC join.
Gail Kaiser of Pomona and Jeff Schragenheim of Nanuet were co-presidents of NHC, and they remain co-presidents of Shir Shalom this year.
Ms. Kaiser knows a thing or two about change and what happens when congregations close their doors. When she and her husband moved to the county in the late 1970s, their efforts to join a Conservative congregation where they could feel at home bore no fruit until they found the Pomona Jewish Center. “We joined, got active, made friends — and then in 2000, the synagogue closed,” she said. The next step for the Kaisers was NHC, where again they became active.
For Ms. Kaiser, one of the most serendipitous results of being part of the new Shir Shalom is how her synagogue history has come full circle. “When Pomona Jewish Center closed its doors, they consolidated with Congregation Sons of Israel of Suffern, and then CSI became Montebello Jewish Center,” she said. “So with the merger, I’m back with old friends again, and that’s heaven-sent.”
The leaders and congregants of Shir Shalom have their eyes firmly set on the future. They were moved to act and become one, in order to preserve Conservative Judaism in Rockland County. As Ms. Kaiser points out, this latest merger of synagogues is nothing new, and it’s a sign of changing demographics in Rockland County. “We’re working very hard to make Shir Shalom a success,” she said. “Now that we’re together, we’re taking the best of both congregations.” The hope is the vibrant new community will attract more Jews in Rockland County to join it. “We want everyone to be happy and call it home,” Ms. Kaiser said.