Rabbi Eric Yoffie’s suggestion earlier this month that the recession could prompt Reform and Conservative congregations to consider merger was controversial, but it certainly wasn’t new.
In West Virginia, the overwhelming majority of Jewish congregations are the products of the very kind of cross-movement consolidation that Yoffie, the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, proposed.
Congregations in Wheeling, Huntington, Bluefield and Beckley all resulted from mergers between Reform and Conservative synagogues.
In some cases, the mergers were difficult and resisted by members of each entity.
In other cases they were carefully planned, the results of which can be seen to this day.
“What ended up as a merger [was] a practical solution to dwindling congregation size and the lack of a rabbi at the Conservative temple,” said Tom Scarr, president of B’nai Shalom in Huntington.
B’nai Shalom is a consolidation of the names B’nai Israel (the Conservative congregation) and Ohev Shalom (the Reform temple).
Under the terms of a 1974 agreement, which led to the merger, B’nai Shalom maintains paid affiliations to both movements, though it only pays half-rates to each.
That same agreement also requires the congregation to maintain two cemeteries — one traditional, one liberal — a kosher kitchen in the building, formerly the Reform temple, and the erection of a chapel that faces east, which it did (a replica of the old Conservative sanctuary).
The rabbi, David Wucher, is Reform, but the terms of the merger permit a spiritual leader from either movement, as they do the prayerbooks.
The merger was done in stages, with both congregation sharing social hall at first then a rabbi and finally total
“They needed each other,” Scarr said.
They also needed each other in Wheeling where the Woodsdale Temple (Reform) and the Synagogue of Israel (Conservative) merged in 1974 — but not without some rough spots, said Arnold Lazarus, then-president of the Woodsdale Temple.
Lazarus said the size of the Wheeling Jewish community; both in the city and across the Ohio River in Belmont County, Ohio, had dropped sharply over the years before the action was taken.
“It became obvious that we were going to have to merge, but there was some big-time resistance in both congregations,” he said.
Lazarus asked one Temple member, Joseph Strauss, an opponent of the merger, to study possible options.
“He came back and said, ‘while I remain opposed to this merger, I see no alternative to it,’” Lazarus recalled. “That basically broke the back of the opposition in the temple.”
Like in Huntington, the merger came in steps over six years, first the two congregations merged their religious schools, then they shared a rabbi, finally they consolidated in the Woodsdale building and named the new Congregation Temple Shalom.
Unlike in Huntington, Temple Shalom affiliates with the Reform movement only, though the manner of worship bears little resemblance to what Lazarus was used to.
“It does not resemble the congregation that I joined 50 years ago. It resembles more of the synagogue.”
And that’s a good thing,” the long-time classical Reform Jew said.
“As you know, the German immigrants [who founded the Reform temple] wanted to shed that Jewish nationality image and services where just like a Christian service.”
Now, “I can see my grandchildren over there; there’s no question it (the worship experience) is more meaningful. It gives Judaism some identity rather than the traditional Christian service.” It’s just a lot more significant.”
He said there were debates after the merger over ritual and policy, but they eventually worked themselves out and the merger became accepted.
The same was true in Huntington, Scarr said, though some people still reflect on it.
“I moved here in ’96. Shortly after I moved if you talked to some people it sounded like the merger happened 50 years ago, and when you talked to others it sounded like it happened just a few years ago.”
Whether more Reform-Conservative mergers are in the offing is difficult to predict, he said.
“That really depends on the individual situation,” Scarr said. “Certainly, in [some] places the economy may cause people to belt tighten, but not much more. Other places, it may result in mergers of two Reform (synagogues) or two Conservative; I think that would happen before you get a merger of Conservative or Reform. That would happen in cities where you don’t have two Conservative or two Reform.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)