Two identities, one roof

For the 12 years since its founding, Or Shalom Jewish Community has met in churches. Now, for the first time, it will be able to call a synagogue home.

And it may be the first time ever that a Conservative congregation welcomes a Jewish Renewal congregation into its space (though San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Israel-Judea is the result of a merger between a Reform synagogue and a Conservative one).

Located in the Sunset district, Congregation Ner Tamid has seen its younger members dwindle over the years. Its core membership is mostly longtime members in their 50s and 60s. There is no religious school.

Meanwhile, Or Shalom’s membership comprises mostly young families, and its religious school has more than 100 students. In the past, Or Shalom b’nai mitzvah have taken place at Ner Tamid, but for years that has been the extent of cooperation between the two.

But now it’s official, Or Shalom has moved into Ner Tamid.

While Ner Tamid has had some financial difficulty, the decision to merge — or rather, enter into a “symbiotic relationship” with Or Shalom, as its president, Ed Reiner, called it — was more than just financial.

“While we’re solvent, we haven’t been meeting our budget,” said Beverlee Hassid, president of Ner Tamid.

“But we’re a congregation of lovely older people. Leadership is falling on the same people over and over, and we have no school any longer. Part of the draw was that Or Shalom has a school, and we wanted youngsters around. We wanted to infuse the congregation with younger families. We didn’t want to fade away to nothing.”

For the first year, each congregation will have its own rabbi; Moshe Levin will remain Ner Tamid’s spiritual leader, and Saraleya Schley, a student in the Aleph rabbinical program, will lead Or Shalom.

Next year, however, the two congregations will look for one rabbi who can lead both types of services.

Services will be held different times. For example, Or Shalom celebrates Shabbat on Friday nights, while Ner Tamid does so in a more traditional fashion on Saturday mornings.

All minor holidays will be celebrated together, and a compromise was struck for High Holy Days. Ner Tamid will begin an hour earlier for its Erev Rosh Hashanah service, and Or Shalom’s will come later that evening. Same goes with the morning, with Or Shalom meeting in the afternoon. For Yom Kippur, Or Shalom will return to the church where it has been holding its High Holy Days services.

Neither congregation has to compromise in practice, since Or Shalom events are always vegetarian, and therefore kosher, and Ner Tamid falls on the liberal side of the Conservative movement, using electricity and amplified music on Shabbat.

Ner Tamid’s membership also doesn’t mind that up to half of Or Shalom’s members are interfaith families.

“Our bylaws written 50 years ago state that we are open to people of the Jewish faith and their spouses,” said Hassid, again, putting them at the more liberal end of the Conservative movement. “We feel we should be open to everyone who wants to express themselves in a Jewish way.”

Where they do differ is in their feelings about Israel, as Hassid described her congregation as “absolutely pro-Israel.”

Or Shalom’s membership supports the Jewish state, but has been known to offer prayers for Palestinians killed in the Mideast violence, as well as Jews.

“There won’t be any political agenda coming from the bimah,” said Hassid, yet Reiner said Or Shalom would continue to offer prayers for both peoples.

“The model is not making one entity out of them,” said Reiner. “We’re keeping our own identities, but keeping them under one roof.”

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."