The corner of Shady and Wilkins avenues in Squirrel Hill is becoming a crowded address for congregations.
Congregation Dor Hadash has announced that it will move into the Tree of Life synagogue this year. The announcement brings to three the number of congregations calling that single synagogue home. Tree of Life Congregation and Or L’Simcha already worship there.
The switch from Community Day School — Dor Hadash’s location for the past 18 years — to Tree of Life begins in February when its executive committee holds it first meeting there. The move should be completed by April, though an official date has not been set.
In a meeting Friday, Jan. 22, with The Chronicle, Dor Hadash President Deane Root, Tree of Life President Alan B. Gordon and Executive Director Joel Don Goldstein said the move had been under discussion for several months.
In fact, the congregation held a trial run service at Tree of Life last October.
“We wanted our members to experience a religious service in this space — in the Tree of Life space — because they couldn’t conceive in the abstract how this might work,” Root said. “We found it worked very easily, and it was really a joy to have these communities in the same space at the same time and experiencing one another.”
The move marks another in a growing list of ways Pittsburgh area congregations, responding to shrinking membership roles and tough economic times, are consolidating their space and operations to do more with less.
After 47 years in existence, “Dor Hadash has changed,” Root said. “We are a more active congregation … a congregation that loves to learn, that feels as strongly about social action, tzedaka and environmental issues.
“We have found ourselves having to go to outside space we rent to do these things,” he continued. “We need to consolidate. We need to have a focused presence in the community.”
Dor Hadash plans to hold its services in the Robinson Pavilion of Tree of Life synagogue, but Gordon said all three congregations must be “flexible” to accommodate the needs of the others.
For instance, if a Dor Hadash family were planning a bar mitzva and expecting 500 guests, the congregation could take over the Halpern Sanctuary on the opposite end of the synagogue for that weekend.
“There’s going to be flexibility,” Gordon said. “We have to be mindful of what the members of each congregation need.”
As private organizations, neither congregation is required to disclose the financial terms of their space sharing arrangement, but Root said the move has nothing to do with saving money.
Currently Dor Hadash activities are scattered across the city and suburbs, creating a confusing situation for its members. In the last two years alone, it has rented space at the Labor Zionist Building, New Light Congregation, Rodef Shalom and the Squirrel Hill Branch of Carnegie Library for religious, educational and social purposes.
“We’ll spend more money” by moving to Tree of Life, Root said. “We’ll spend less in tsurres and anxiety.”
“This is a long-standing need or issue in our congregation,” he added. “It’s just not one that attracted a lot of public attention.”
In fact, Root said his congregation has been interested in moving to a more permanent space since the 1990s. “We just never could find that right space. Three to four years ago, we made it a priority because we were reaching the point where we just needed to make that happen.”
With the move, Dor Hadash brings 140 families into a space where 345 families from Tree of Life and 200 from Or L’Simcha already meet.
The Dor Hadash religious school will continue to meet in private homes, Root said, but its members will join Kiddush on Saturdays with the other two congregations following services, and they are free to attend morning minyans during the week as well.
When founded in 1963, Dor Hadash first met at the Hebrew Institute at the corner of Denniston and Forbes avenues, Squirrel Hill. It later moved to Rodef Shalom Congregation for three years, and finally to Community Day School, where it has been ever since.
Dor Hadash is a lay-led Reconstructionist congregation, while Tree of Life is a member of the Conservative movement and Or L’Simcha worships in the Conservative tradition. Rabbi Chuck Diamond leads joint services for those two congregations.
Diamond hopes to have some interaction with Dor Hadash as well, once the congregation is moved in.
“I think we’ll be doing some things together where it makes sense,” he said, “like adult education and social action, maybe some family programs, but that remains to be seen.”
“A lot of our members have attended services in his (Diamond’s) shul and at Tree of Life over the years. A lot of our members are former Tree of Life members,” Root said. “There’s a lot of interaction between our members already.”
While three congregations will occupy the same synagogue as of April, that number is expected to shrink to two. Tree of Life and Or L’Simcha began a process last year to explore consolidating their congregations.
Gordon said the leaders of both congregations have brought the idea to their members for feedback, and they are now reviewing the response. He said there is no timetable for reaching a deal, though they have already consolidated their religious schools.
(In fact, the merged religious schools were named a USCJ “Framework School of Excellence” last year. The school plans to celebrate the award this Sunday as part of its Tu B’ Shevat Family program.)
In the past three years, several consolidation announcements have been made among Pittsburgh area Jewish institutions.
In addition to the three congregations sharing Tree of Life synagogue, Beth Shalom is now hosting the Hillel Academy boys school. Rodef Shalom leases space to Jewish Residential Services and the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Committee. In Monroeville, Temple David and the Parkway Jewish Center merged their religious schools.
“Congregations have limitations; they don’t have big budgets,” Gordon said. “So you have to do a better job with smaller spaces.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)