Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says he applauds the loyalty of synagogue members to their own congregations.
Nevertheless, he said last Friday at a URJ board of trustees meeting in Tampa, Fla., “synagogues need to take a hard look at whether they need to merge or share services, buildings, and staff with neighboring congregations – including those of other denominations.”
Yoffie said that while he has “always believed that the passionate pluralism of North American synagogue life is a source of strength â€¦ we are in a crisis situation, and it may be that we can no longer afford what we once took for granted.”
In an interview with this newspaper, Yoffie noted that his talk included three distinct proposals.
First, he said, “congregations in small towns – including both Reform and Conservative congregations – might consider cooperating in activities and possibly merging.”
Second, in metropolitan areas, particularly those with many Reform synagogues, “the time has come [for them] to consider joining together for their mutual benefit and to cut down expenses.”
Third, he said, national synagogue organizations of the major Jewish denominations “might think about working together to provide services for their members where religious differences wouldn’t intervene.” For example, he said, they might cooperate in the areas of synagogue management, leadership development, and social action.
Yoffie noted that “mergers between Reform and Conservative congregations have happened in the past, and there are currently eight congregations that are members of both movements.”
The Reform leader acknowledged that while there are some potential obstacles to interdenominational mergers – “kashrut, the interpretation of Shabbat, patrilineal descent” – the merged congregations are finding ways to deal with these issues.
Yoffie added, however, that mergers between congregations in the same movement are more common. He attributed this to changing demographics.
“In a large city – with two, or five, or 10 Reform congregations – it may be that the time has come to share social services, buildings, and staff,” he said, noting that congregations might share personnel such as program directors and assistant rabbis.
In addition, he said, synagogues might create joint adult education departments.
“They can still maintain their distinct identities but save critical dollars at this time of financial crisis,” he said, adding that while such sharing is already taking place among some congregations, “it’s not happening a lot. This is a good time to reconsider that.”
The URJ president explained that while many Reform congregations have some “practical” differences, “they don’t have differences in practice or belief.” He therefore expects that this suggestion will have “more immediate impact” than the other two.
Yoffie said the URJ has set up a task force, recognizing that merger talks – even within one movement – create a host of “difficult and emotional” issues. He said the movement plans to find a cluster of congregations where there is openness to change and talk to area leadership about what can be done to save money.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, agreed with Yoffie that “in this economy, mergers and any other ways we can combine resources are options that congregations ought to consider.”
However, he said, “It is always better â€¦ for congregations to look for partnerships where there will be a congruence of ideology and practice.”
Epstein said that “one of the other options that should be considered is how to share resources – such as buildings, other infrastructure, and, if possible, personnel, without an actual merger. If a merger is called for,” he said, “certainly it is better for a congregation to find a partner from the same stream of Judaism.”
Rabbi Shammai Engelmayer, religious leader of Temple Israel Community Center in Cliffside Park and president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, told this newspaper that “with some Conservative synagogues moving to the left and Reform synagogues moving to the right, they really are pretty much the same type of synagogue these days. There’s not so much difference in the liturgy and practice.”
However, echoing Yoffie, Engelmayer, a columnist for the paper, said that differences still exist on issues such as whether to keep the synagogue kosher and how much Hebrew to use in a Shabbat service.
“Some synagogues may be able to pull such a merger off,” he said. “But even within the Reform movement, synagogues differ on whether to observe one day of yom tov or two.”
“The major sticking point will be patrilineal descent,” said Engelmayer. “Would it put the Conservative shul in the position of not giving an aliyah to, say, the patrilineally descended president of the Reform half of the synagogue? Even if the ideologies are in tune on everything else, this will be a stumbling block.” He noted also that the Conservative movement generally considers Reform conversions “incomplete.”
The issue of sharing space is more straightforward, he suggested, adding that whether congregations can share a facility depends on the size of the available space.
“There’s no reason why another synagogue can’t use, say, the second sanctuary of a larger congregation and even have two rabbis,” he said. “It would be like an office building.”
Still, he added, the congregations would have to provide an “iron-clad guarantee not to raid” the membership of the other synagogue.
“They certainly can share office costs and have one location for office staff,” Engelmayer said. While he personally hasn’t seen a joint congregation, he feels that it might be an option “in a location where’s there no sense having more than one synagogue – for example, where the Jewish population has dwindled.”
Rabbi Debra Hachen, religious leader of Temple Beth-El of Northern Valley in Closter and treasurer of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, told this newspaper that “lots of places have combined religious schools and youth programs. It’s been going on for years.”
“It’s not unusual,” she said of joint educational programs, noting that such schools often serve both Reform and Conservative students. Nevertheless, she said, the practice is more common in places with a sparse Jewish population.
She also noted that local Reform congregations are no strangers to sharing resources.
“Some 30 years ago, local Reform rabbis knew they could do better with post bar-mitzvah education if they pooled their resources.” As a result, they created the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism, located in Washington Township.
Now, she said, that same group of rabbis has “started a conversation” about youth activities, floating ideas such as sharing youth advisers. The group is planning to meet soon to discuss the issue.
Hachen said that “in this tough economy, some synagogues are trying to hold on alone. Yoffie’s speech may inspire them to take a look beyond their own walls for creative solutions.”
“His talk will challenge congregations to remember they are connected to a common Reform movement,” she said. In addition, to the extent that it would further links between Reform and Conservative shuls, “it might also remind us that we are ultimately one Jewish people.”