‘Not a merger; we’re joining forces’

‘Not a merger; we’re joining forces’

Reform congregation moves from Kinnelon to cohabit with Conservative shul in Pompton Lakes

The sign in front of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Kinnelon that marked the presence of the Jewish congregation, along with the synagogue’s school children. Courtesy JCK

After meeting for more than 20 years in Saint David’s church, the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon has found a home in a nearby synagogue.

On Friday night, the Reform congregation was scheduled to bring one of its Torah scrolls – originally from Czechoslovakia and rescued from the Shoah – to its new home in the ark of Congregation Beth Shalom in Pompton Lakes.

No more will the congregation hire someone to go through the pews, turning the crucifix-faced Episcopal hymnals backward. Nor will they have to wheel its portable ark in and out of a shared sanctuary each week.

And after decades of renting, the Kinnelon congregation has bought a share in the Pompton Lakes building.

The distance from Kinnelon in Morris County to Pompton Lakes in Passaic County is six miles. The more interesting distance between the two is denominational: Beth Shalom is a Conservative congregation.

Unlike the several other area synagogues that have combined in recent years, “We are not a merger; we’re a joining of forces,” Diane Dalton said. Dalton was one of Beth Shalom’s representatives in the discussions that led to the new arrangement.

And both congregations will maintain their separate identities, including their separate rabbis and memberships in the Reform and Conservative synagogue organizations, even while cooperating on a school and running joint High Holy Day services.

Both congregations’ rabbis will officiate on Rosh Hashanah. Morning services will start off in the Reform prayerbook, switching to the Conservative machzor at the Torah reading.

Combining Reform and Conservative congregations has become a growing trend nationwide, and it is particularly strong among the aging Jewish communities in the Midwest and Northeast.

In Saint Louis this week, a Reform and a Conservative Jewish day school opened as a combined, nondenominational school.

Beth Shalom welcomes the partnership because it will bring younger families into the building. “Our membership has decreased because of age,” said Beth Shalom’s president, Larry Tornow. “Their congregation is a lot younger than ours. It has a lot more kids,” he said.

Only three of the 35 children in the combined new synagogue school, which will meet for the first time on Sunday, come from Beth Shalom.

The combined congregation’s age gap works out well for scheduling.

The Kinnelon congregation has been holding services only two Friday nights a month, with an occasional Saturday morning bar or bat mitzvah. Beth Shalom holds services every Friday night and Saturday morning. Now, on the first Friday night of each month, Rabbi Josh Leighton of Kinnelon will lead a family service at 6:30, followed by an oneg, after which Rabbi David Bockman of Beth Shalom will lead a Conservative service.

The move brings some mixed feelings with it, said Batyah Hancock, who is Kinnelon’s director of education and trains its bar and bat mitzvah students. (Bockman will continue to train Beth Shalom’s students.) That’s because the congregation “always wanted to be in their own building.” And the same time, “they wanted very much to be in the Kinnelon area. There was no Jewish presence in Kinnelon before their being there.

“They always had a building fund, but they were never able to find a building,” Hancock said.

Hancock said that because her school’s curriculum was teaching a “global view” of Jewish culture and rituals, rather than just Reform Judaism, “our curriculum was instantly accepted by the rabbi and other members from Beth Shalom.”

For the Hebrew curriculum, which aims at teaching students how to read prayers in Hebrew, she had selected “a book that has both the liberal and traditional version of prayers in them. It’s ideal for this situation.”

How significant are the denominational differences?

“People still identify with their movement very strongly,” Kinnelon’s Leighton said.

“As far as the liturgy goes, the machzors are very similar, with slight variations in the length of a prayer. In essence, the format and rubric of the service is the same, but the Reform liturgy and ideology has pared down a lot.

“There are a couple of places where we read the same paragraph, perhaps the different movements have different words, reflecting an ideological or theological difference about the prayer itself,” he said.

The two rabbis, as well as Beth Shalom’s High Holy Day cantor, Rabbi Iscah Waldman, have mapped out their shared Rosh Hashanah services.

“We have found our commonalities and worked around our differences and have come up with a unique blending of the two that should make for a memorable and meaningful High Holy Days,” Leighton said.

Leighton said the thematic readings in the Conservative machzor – both congregations use the High Holy Day prayerbooks their movements published in the 1970s – “will add greatly to my experience and provide new readings for my congregation, who are used to the same readings out of the same book.”

The Reform machzor does not have the Conservative movement’s additional Musaf service. The result “is going to be a longer experience than our people might have been used to,” Leighton said. “At the same time, we are offering a lot of different experiences. One of the biggest things is that with this blending, whereas the Reform machzor only has one set of shofar blasts, there will be two sets of blasts. I think that is always a plus.”

The biggest theological difference between the Reform and Conservative prayerbooks comes in the second blessing of the Amidah. Where the traditional prayer praises God for “reviving the dead” – mehayeh metim – the Reform movement concludes by blessing God who “enlivens all” – mehayeh hakol – omitting the reference to the resurrection.

The combined service will use the language of whichever prayer book is in use.

“If we’re reading out of Gates of Repentance, the Reform version, we will say ‘hakol.’ If out of Machzor Hadash, we’ll read ‘meitim,'” Leighton said.

Unlike most Reform synagogues, the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon has celebrated two days of Rosh Hashanah.

With last Friday night’s service conducted from the Reform siddur, the Conservative congregation already has begun to experience the slightly different liturgy.

“What I really like about the Reform siddur is that there’s a lot more transliteration for people who can’t read Hebrew,” Dalton said. “That’s a plus.”

Beth Shalom’s Bockman said that while there are important theological differences between the two movements, “I don’t know theologically what anybody sitting in the room believes. Nobody knows that.”

There are practical differences as well. Although kashrut is more important to Beth Shalom, the Reform congregation has agreed to keep the synagogue kitchen kosher.

Services are another matter.

“When they’re having a Reform-led service, they can do what they want,” Bockman said. “If they didn’t require everybody to wear a kipah, that would be okay. If somebody wants to have picture taken on Shabbat, that’s their lookout. It’s their davening to do with as they want to,” he said.

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