Dueling identities: Conservative-Reform synagogue mergers can be a thorny prospect

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des moines, iowa | Ken Waltman and Brian Pearl play ball together. Now they want to pray together.

The two men — one from this city’s Conservative congregation, the other a member of the Reform synagogue — say it makes sense for their shuls to merge.

At issue is who must move. The Conservative congregation wants both synagogues to build a new facility in the western part of Des Moines, while the Reform congregation wants to stay in its building and have the Conservatives move there.

Ego and money are also big factors, say Pearl and Waltman, who play basketball every Sunday with guys from both shuls.

“No matter what you do, you’re always going to have people who are not happy with the outcome,” Waltman says.

The Des Moines situation is being repeated across the country. As Jewish populations shift, with young Jews leaving the suburbs and Midwest in favor of both coasts and larger cities, older congregations are merging to save money and consolidate their shrinking memberships.

Most mergers take place between congregations of the same denomination. Even so, the logistics can prove nightmarish: Whose rabbi stays, whose Torah scrolls get used, whose building gets sold? The negotiations are even more complex when the merger involves congregations from different denominations.

While many early 20th-century mergers were between Orthodox and Conservative congregations, most today involve Conservative and Reform. There are no hard numbers, except for those dozen or so who maintain dual affiliation with both movements. Most affiliate with one movement or the other, and their histories are only remembered anecdotally.

When shuls of two denominations join forces, they face real questions of ritual and Jewish law along with the power dynamics and logistical difficulties attendant upon any organizational consolidation.

“It’s a difference in religious culture,” says Rabbi Chuck Simon, executive director of the Conservative movement’s Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs, noting that questions of kashrut, patrilineal descent and mikvah are all commons issues during Reform-Conservative mergers.

Rabbi Daniel Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, estimates that 50 percent of such merger attempts fail. He attributes that mostly to unwillingness to compromise.

Even when mergers go through, one often sees the persistence of two “congregations” in one building, sometimes even years later.

This is often perpetuated by the practice, common in many merged congregations, of holding Reform services Friday night and Conservative, or more traditional, services Saturday morning.

It’s been done that way at San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Israel-Judea since 1969. That’s the year Beth Israel, an older Conservative congregation located in an increasingly dangerous neighborhood, joined Temple Judea, a Reform congregation with a

new rabbi who was attracting younger families.

“It was a merger of convenience, of necessity,” explains Estell Goldstein, who was 30 at the time and a member of Beth Israel. Even so, she adds, “It was a monumentally difficult thing to bring off, nothing anyone should go into lightly.”

Beth Israel had a kosher kitchen, while Temple Judea did not. Judea’s rabbi performed mixed marriages and the congregation read Torah on Friday night, both of which appalled many Beth Israel members.

After long debate, the kitchen in the new congregation was declared “restrictive,” meaning no non-kosher meat and no mixing of milk and meat, the rabbi kept doing intermarriages and the Torah was read on Fridays.

Some people, like Goldstein, were relieved. Others, from both the Reform and Conservative sides, left.

Today, Beth Israel-Judea is led by Reconstructionist Rabbi Rosalind Glazer. She says that’s no accident.

“There’s still a hybrid identity, and some of them thought a Reconstruc-tionist would rescue them from it,” Glazer suggests.

Talented leadership sometimes can overcome the odds. That was true in Corpus Christi, Texas, where an aging, dwindling Conservative congregation merged two years ago with a Reform temple double its size.

“Rather than wait for the Conservative congregation to collapse, we decided to merge while both were still on their feet. That way, everyone could have dignity,” says Rabbi Kenneth Roseman, who was hired by the Reform congregation in 2002 and remains the spiritual leader of the combined synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel.

Although the Reform community was larger and the new congregation affiliates only with the Reform movement, compromises were made: Friday night services are Reform, while Saturday morning is modified Conservative; a kosher dairy kitchen was built alongside the existing non-kosher kitchen; and unused space has been made into a chapel for a weekly Conservative minyan.

Two High Holy Days services were held this fall. Rather than proving divisive, former congregational president Rona Chafetz Train says it showed how welcoming the new congregation can be.

“The beautiful thing is, people went back and forth between the services,” she relates. “People who had never been to a Conservative service could see one, and the same for the Reform. Everybody was going around with a smile on their face, hugging each other.”

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].