Jewish Congregations Gain Strength by Merging Across Divides

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May 12, 2013; Arizona Jewish Post

Over the last decade, shrinking Jewish enclaves across the country have come together, merging congregations that can no longer survive independently and, in the process, bridging the gap of significant differences to find their common identity. An early proving ground for this grand experiment is Corpus Christi, Texas, whose Jewish population once numbered thousands, peaking in World War II when the Conservative synagogue B’nai Israel was founded. By 2005, with only a thousand Jews remaining in the town, and with only a fraction actively participating in services of any kind, B’nai Israel and the Reform shul Temple Beth El joined to form Congregation Beth Israel, sharing space while respecting liturgical and theological differences. Friday night and Saturday morning services cater to Reform and Conservative members, respectively, and the interior design elements of the synagogue accommodate both faiths equally, according to the Reform-ordained Rabbi Kenneth Roseman, who says of this arrangement that, “It’s not perfect, but it works.”

Dozens of other Jewish communities have followed this model, often enjoying similar cultural and fiscal benefits. In the Southern California town of Alisa Viejo, the much larger Reform synagogue Beth El welcomed about 120 Conservative families from the smaller and struggling Congregation Eilat, with some overlapping ministerial and educational functions. Eilat members joined the Beth El board and the kitchen was brought up to Conservative kosher standards. According to Rabbi David Fine, rabbinic director of the Union for Reform Judaism, which represents a network of small congregations, the common spurs for many combinations are demographic changes and increasingly challenging economic circumstances for many practicing Jewish families, both of which severely undercut the fiscal soundness for congregations across the country. Tough times have forced separate denominations to rethink their formation of identity around exclusion of others.

“Many congregations worked hard for years to distinguish themselves,” Fine said. “It wasn’t so much ‘who are we’ but ‘who are we not?’—looking at the other place across town. Now it’s more, ‘what do we have in common?’” In Canton, Ohio, three separate congregations moved into the town’s Conservative synagogue after the Reform temple and the Jewish community center were put on the market. The three congregations now equally divide all expenses and share ownership of the nonprofit corporation established to manage the building. Each case of congregations joining forces has a different arrangement, but each success at crossing sociocultural divides serves as a positive lesson for any divided group to come together and become a tighter-knit, if smaller, community.—Louis Altman