Bergen County’s synagogue mergers reflect a national trend, according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.
The trend has several causes, he said, including the economic downturn and declining synagogue affiliation among Reform and Conservative Jews.
According to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the number of families affiliated with the movement’s synagogues in the Northeast dropped by 30 percent in the past decade.
Another factor in Conservative mergers are long-term changes in the movement. When the Conservative movement began building its suburban synagogues in the 1950s, Sarna said, “they assumed that there were members who walked, so you tended to have Conservative synagogues every couple of miles. Nowadays, you don’t make that assumption.”
That would explain why Fair Lawn, which encompasses 5.2 square miles, had four Conservative synagogues before mergers reduced them to two, one egalitarian and one traditional.
“In terms of the Reform movement, I think that the economic downturn hit the Reform movement particularly hard, as did the Great Depression, because for some Reform Jews, paying synagogue dues was a discretionary expense,” he said.
Sarna said synagogue mergers have been a constant in American Jewish history. A wave of mergers took place when Jews began moving to suburbia. Chicago’s KAM Isaiah Israel synagogue, famed for its location across the street from President Barack Obama’s former home, is the result of merger of several Reform congregations. “As that area of Chicago changed and the Jews moved out, all of them merged into one congregation,” Sarna said.
He believes that larger cultural trends herald more bad news for synagogue affiliation and continuing interest in mergers.
“We’ve gone a significant number of decades of having a religious revival, where much of the talk was about people becoming more religious. I think there’s growing evidence that that era has ended and in fact we’re seeing – as we did in the 1920s – a movement in the other direction, away from churches and synagogues. We’ve seen these cycles throughout American history,” he said.