Reform congregations mulling merger options
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Reform congregations mulling merger options

Reform congregations mulling merger options

Marla Cohen is a freelance writer. She lives in Rockland County.

Two of Rockland County’s four Reform congregations are exploring the possibility of merging, saying that shifting demographics and changes in their clergy make the time right to explore such an option.

Temple Beth El, a stately 66-year-old synagogue in the heart of Spring Valley, and New City’s Temple Beth Sholom, reinvigorated with a newly hired young rabbi, are in ongoing discussions about a possible merger or consolidation, according to presidents of both congregations.

Both congregations have discussed the possibility on and off for the past few years. Now, recent changes in the Reform congregational landscape made success seem more likely – Beth El’s Rabbi Ronald Mass is retiring, and Temple Beth Sholom welcomed Rabbi Brian Leiken in July. The time seemed right to begin discussion anew.

Nancy Kenney, Temple Beth Sholom’s president, sent a letter and email to the congregation and posted it on Facebook in early January, announcing that a committee had been formed to explore joining with Beth El.

“I write to inform you that the board of both Temple Beth El in Spring Valley and Temple Beth Sholom have empowered a committee to begin discussion to develop a shared vision and eventually, with much work ahead, a unified synagogue in Rockland County,” Kenney wrote. “Only you, as members of our congregational family, and members of Temple Beth El, can ultimately approve this vision.”

Billie Landman, her counterpart at Beth El, also sent a letter to the shul’s members around the same time, describing steps being taken to move the conversation forward. Both congregations have been working with the Union of Reform Judaism to get over some of the hurdles congregations face when they approach a merger.

Both presidents realize that the road forward isn’t an easy one as they look to join two different houses of worship, and decide what to do about facilities, clergy, and ritual objects.

“Mergers in these situations are hard for everyone,” said Kenney, who has been president of TK-year-old Beth Sholom’s board of directors since June. “You are very connected to a place, a community, a people, and suddenly you are confronting that things may be different.”

Beth El’s Landman concurred, stressing that at the moment the merger talk is focused on what sort of vision each has for the future – one that hopes to keep Reform Judaism thriving and vibrant in Rockland County.

“We felt we had a lot in common with Beth Sholom and that’s why we are pursuing this merger, if you will,” said Landman, who has been president of Beth El’s board of directors since July 2011. “This is a vision we really have to work at to make a reality. This is not going to be easy, but it’s very much needed right now.”

The time seemed ripe for many reasons, most importantly because the issue of which rabbi to retain was not as fraught as it might be were there two senior rabbis vying for one position. Mass, who has been at Temple Beth El for most of his career – starting as an assistant rabbi in 1983 and becoming senior rabbi in 1994 – is retiring. Leiken started at Temple Beth Sholom in the summer, when Rabbi David Fass retired after 34 years as its spiritual leader.

This is not the first time talks of merger have arisen among the Reform congregations in Rockland County. In 2007, when the Reform Temple of Suffern-Shir Shalom merged with Temple Beth Haverim of Mahwah, N.J., there was much soul-searching among the four remaining congregations. But no mergers have come to fruition.

While clergy is one issue, another thorny question is location. Beth El, set back from Viola Road between Route 306 and Union Road in Spring Valley, is surrounded by ultra-Orthodox institutions such as the Bas Mikroh Girls School and Ohr Somayach Tannenbaum Educational Center. The neighborhood, now a black-hat enclave, has changed drastically since the days when the temple boasted more than 900 families as members. Today Beth El serves approximately 325 members, who come from across the county, including Suffern, Nyack, and Piermont, as well as from Beth Sholom’s backyard in New City.

Temple Beth Sholom, which once had nearly 740 congregants and now serves about 270, is in New City, a more Jewishly liberal area. So while no decisions have been made, the committee is looking to either sell both buildings and build a new one, or have the new entity to move into Temple Beth Sholom’s building.

These issues are among the most difficult challenges that congregations face when they approach blending their staffs, programs, facilities, and cultures, according to Rabbi David Fine, URJ’s director of small congregations network.

“It’s having his and hers become ours,” said Fine, who has been handling congregational mergers for URJ for the past 14 years. “You have to date, to get to know the partner, and then you form a long-term relationship.

“The easiest things are the assets, the financial assets and resources,” he said. “Even legalities. The challenge is joining two cultures, joining of symbols and creating a larger future together.”

That the Rockland congregations are looking at consolidating reflects broad trends in liberal Judaism, according to Fine. “It’s Robert Putnam’s ‘Bowling Alone,'” he said, citing a seminal work on how people no longer seek to join the institutions on which American social life was built in the mid-20th century.

“There’s a population shift and a demographic shift,” he noted. “We are getting older and the children of the boomers are joining later. It’s the perfect storm.”

Rockland County has seen its share of synagogue mergers and closings among the liberal streams of Judaism in the last decade. In addition to the Reform Shir Shalom’s southern migration, Conservative congregations have seen some tsuris as well. The JCC of Spring Valley closed, and Pomona Jewish Center and Congregation Sons of Israel in Suffern merged to become Montebello Jewish Center. And the traditional congregations of Monsey Jewish Center and Congregation Shaarey Tefiloh merged to become Shaarey Israel.

While there is no official timeline for completing a merger between Beth Sholom and Beth El, both presidents say that if it is going to happen it will be sooner rather than later. Beth El, meanwhile, will continue its rabbi search in case the merger does not pan out, Landman said. That puts a target date of around July 1, when Mass will retire.

Both presidents appear to be resolute in the belief that merger is the best option available, however. Creating a new congregation out of two established fixtures in Jewish Rockland won’t be easy, they say, but it has to be done.

“Because neither of us is desperate,” said Landman, explaining why the timing is right. “We both have very rich histories to preserve, and rather than lose everything, if we can merge and preserve that together, that would be best.”

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