Urge to merge synagogues met with local skepticism

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, floated a trial balloon this week: In light of the economic crisis, he suggested Reform and Conservative synagogues work together more closely, and in some cases even consider merging.

Based on a small sampling of local reactions, however, that trial balloon is made of lead.

In a Dec. 15 sermon to the URJ’s board of trustees in New York, Yoffie said synagogues should consider merging or sharing services, buildings and staff with neighboring congregations, including those of other movements.

“I have always believed that the passionate pluralism of North American synagogue life is a source of strength,” Yoffie said. “But now we are in a crisis situation and it may be that we can no longer afford what we once took for granted.”

He proposed that struggling, small-town Reform and Conservative synagogues consider cooperative programming or formal mergers if the community can no longer sustain both synagogues. In large, metropolitan areas, he said, collaboration could be appropriate.

“It’s interesting timing,” commented Rabbi Micah Hyman of Congregation Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in San Francisco. “I don’t know if talking about post-denominationalism in the midst of an economic crisis is the right long-range plan.

“Liturgically and ritually, our movements have very different ways of celebrating God, and we have to be very careful of these permeable lines. I know we are singing very different tunes.”

In his speech, Yoffie went to bat for collaboration. “In areas such as social action and synagogue management, why shouldn’t we be working together?” he asked. “At a crucial crossroads of American Jewish history, perhaps now is the time for all streams of Judaism to join in friendship and cooperation to help maintain the strength and vibrancy of our synagogue community.”

Rabbi Melanie Aron, of Reform Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, said Yoffie’s speech had merit, and she agreed wholeheartedly with the sentiment of collaboration.

“It’s absolutely beneficial when we can collaborate,” she said. Conservative and Reform Jews “share a lot of values and goals, and we’re more powerful when we collaborate because we’re speaking for a larger body.

“As we face difficult issues, we would be strengthened if all organizations dealt with things together, rather than each organization facing them alone.”

Rabbi Menachem Creditor, of Conservative Congreg-ation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, saw Yoffie’s proposal as a kind of alarm bell for the Conservative movement.

“Perhaps the day has arrived in which, triggered by the economic crisis Yoffie identifies, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism should reorganize into a tighter, more explicitly purposeful organization, accountable to its constituent organizations,” he said.

Some adherents of Yoffie’s own movement were unenthused. Said Rabbi Roberto Graetz of Reform Temple Isaiah in Lafayette: “In an ideal world it’s great, but in the real world it’s pie in the sky. Institutions don’t go out of business normally. We’re not in the mergers and acquisitions business.”

Mergers between Reform and Conservative congregations have occurred, including in San Francisco when Congregation Beth Israel (Conservative) joined with Temple Judea (Reform) to form Congregation Beth Israel-Judea nearly 50 years ago.

Beth Israel-Judea is one of only eight congregations nationwide that belong to both movements.

Even if interdenominational merging doesn’t appeal to local congregations, working together in other ways is always in good order. Moreover, in tough economic times, synagogues might need to get creative to sustain income streams, some rabbis say. Hyman cites Beth Sholom’s recent building renovation as a good opportunity.

“We should open our facility to non-faith-based, nonprofit organizations to use our space,” he says. “We have a new meditation room that’s perfect for a yoga studio. Why isn’t someone teaching Pilates in there?”

Staff writer Stacey Palevsky contributed to this report.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.