Miami — The banner in front of the synagogue here says it all: “One Synagogue — Two Traditions, Embracing Reform and Conservative Judaism.”
It has been nearly a year since this Reform congregation of about 325 families, Temple Bet Breira, merged with a neighboring Conservative synagogue of 250 families, Congregation Samu-El Or Olom. The union is still being tweaked, and while officials at both congregations are proclaiming it a success thus far, questions linger about the long-term viability of such an arrangement.
Can both traditions really be embraced under one roof, as the sign so confidently trumpets? Can each congregation possibly retain its soul? What sense of community can be forged in a spiritual house divided, with each congregation retaining its own prayer service and the faithful coming together only at a reception afterward? Is it simply a marriage of convenience, a hedge against both the recession and troubling demographic trends?
And can a savvy graphic designer possibly create a handsome letterhead or website logo out of the impossibly clumsy name of Bet Breira Samu-El Or Olom?
However things play out here in the Kendall suburb of southwest Miami, the experiment may just be a glimpse into the future of non-Orthodox American Judaism, as the Reform and Conservative movements edge ever closer in a bid for survival.
“It’s like a love fest,” said Marty Levine, a former president of the Conservative synagogue and a 30-year congregant. “I was concerned going into this, afraid that my beliefs and practices would be threatened. I’m pleasantly surprised to see it has not happened.”
Joe Penchansky, co-vice president of the newly combined ritual committee, said the “process has reinvigorated both groups.”
“We’re like one family with two traditions,” he said.
Although synagogue mergers are becoming more common today in part because of changing demographics and the impact of the recession, this merger is unique because it involves different denominations and large congregations with distinct identities that are situated in a major city.
The clergy of both institutions were retained and although there has been a total merger on all other issues — including Hebrew school classes and bar and bat mitzvah training — the two groups have maintained separate prayer services.
“We have different styles and requirements for prayer,” explained Rabbi Jaime Klein Aklepi, the Reform rabbi. “Halacha [Jewish law] plays a strong role in prayer. … We’re not making everything vanilla.”
As a result, on most Friday nights the congregation runs two simultaneous services — a Reform service led by Rabbi Aklepi and cantorial soloist Don Bennett in the sanctuary, and a Conservative service led by Rabbi David Schonblum and cantorial intern Ronit Rubin in the ballroom. The services are scheduled to end at the same time to permit a joint reception afterward.
It is a formula that is being carefully watched as a possible paradigm for other interdenominational mergers, according to officials at both movements.
“I’m talking to another congregation that is exploring a merger and it is looking at this [union] as the model,” said Rabbi Brian Zimmerman of the Union for Reform Judaism’s South District.
Until now, he said, the “trend among most established [Reform] synagogues had been to consolidate” with a Conservative synagogue before considering a merger for fear of “losing their identity.”
“So the two congregations agree to meet in the same building but to do their own thing,” he said.
But Rabbi Zimmerman said he visited Bet Breira Samu-El Or Olom last year and found that the merger “seemed to bring the energy back.”
Gary Alvo, the first president of the merged congregation, said that since the merger “the parking lot is packed almost every night of the week because of all the events going on.”
“We are having people from other synagogues come to our events, as well as the non-affiliated,” he pointed out, noting that the synagogue’s community seder attracted more than 300.
“There’s a natural interest in what’s going on here. When we combined, there were some members of the Reform congregation who were afraid we would become more Conservative and vice versa. Another congregation offered free membership for a year, and I’m sure some of our members went there. … But today as the Conservatives become more Reform and the Reform become more Conservative, it seems like this is the way to go.”
But Rabbi Zimmerman pointed out that the “downside of mergers is that … it’s possible to have increased conflict if you don’t know the sacred issues in both congregations — what must be preserved and what they are willing to part with. It can be traumatic when congregations rush together and then find they are not compatible.
“In rare cases a large group will leave, not necessarily to start a new congregation but just to leave — leaving the congregation weaker than before,” the rabbi said.
In the case of the Bet Breira and Samu-El Or Olom, the two shuls had a combined, pre-merger membership of about 575 congregants. The merger cost them about 75 members, a drop of about 13 percent.
Sona Gardner, 67, a member of Temple Bet Breira for 35 years, said she and her husband, Alan, joined the merged synagogue when it was just six months old. She said the prospect of the merger caused her and others in the synagogue concern because “nobody wanted to go the other way [Conservative].”
“I grew up Conservative and I didn’t want to go back to that,” Gardner said. “I love Reform.”
But she said the merger has worked because “the new people have brought such vitality — it’s like the old days when we were first starting off. … We had to have it work; otherwise we would both go bust. But it works and people are happy with it. At first I saw it as a necessary evil. Now I’m proud of it and everybody is happy to have it work.”
She said the naysayers left the synagogue and that at least one of them wants to return because “a lot of her friends are here. … You have to be able to compromise. I don’t like the kosher kitchen, but I am more interested in our survival. And everybody I have encountered is very nice and heimish and wants it to work.”
Although “formal mergers” between Conservative and Reform synagogues have been rare, some unions have been forged in recent years “in small, shrinking communities,” according to Rabbi Paul Drazen, chief program development officer of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
He recalled that when that happened in Sioux City, Iowa, the Reform group held prayer services Friday night and the Conservative group held services Saturday morning.
“Left-wing Conservative congregations and right-wing Reform congregations are not that far apart in many ways,” Rabbi Drazen said. “When the two groups are close enough, they can survive together. There could be lots of different models to follow; it just depends on the nature of the community in which they live.”
Levine pointed out that the “major difference” between the two movements is over the issue of patrilineal descent: the Reform movement recognizes as Jewish a child with a Jewish father and gentile mother (provided the child is raised exclusively Jewish), and the Conservatives say they follow halacha [Jewish law] that requires the child’s mother to be Jewish or the child to convert.
Bet Breira Samu-El Or Olom will admit all Jewish families and those who are not Jewish halachically will be able to become a bar or bat mitzvah in the Reform service, Rabbi Aklepi pointed out.
The merger agreement in Miami took nine months to work out and covered virtually everything, according to Ellen Weil, executive vice president of Bet Breira Samu-El Or Olom. The Reform congregation had to agree to become kosher and to end Hebrew school classes on Saturdays. The Conservative synagogue had to sell its building — located about 30 blocks away — and to allow the Reform congregation first use of the sanctuary. Some of the proceeds of the building’s sale were used to renovate the synagogue’s four-acre campus to accommodate the new members.
Asked what has been the biggest problem stemming from the merger, Weil paused and then replied: “The biggest headache was parking [on the High Holy Days]. We had to rent the parking lot of a nearby hospital and use buses to take people back and forth.”
She said the synagogue parking lot has space for no more than perhaps 250 cars, and that both the sanctuary and ballroom were completely full during the High Holy Day services.
“It was wonderful,” she said of the crowd and of the decision to maintain two different services. “We all want to respect whatever brand of Judaism each practices and not mush them together. … We had similar needs. We felt we were very similar in our goals. We addressed the tough issues at the beginning of the negotiations. The need for the building to be kosher was a big sacrifice for our Reform friends, but they said they understood there could be no merger without it and that if all other issues were resolved, they would do it.”
Rabbi Aklepi said that although no pork or shellfish was served in the Reform synagogue, a Saturday afternoon bar or bat mitzvah party might have an omelet station or stir fry station, violating the prohibition against cooking on Shabbat.
The merged synagogue continues to be a member of both United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Union for Reform Judaism. Its teens are members of both of those organization’s youth groups, which meet together for all social activities. There is one men’s club and one sisterhood, which resulted in a 50 percent increase in the Conservative synagogue’s men’s club and a doubling of its sisterhood membership to 140. And the merger has infused those groups with younger members because the Conservative synagogue’s membership was generally in its 60s whereas the Reform had primarily families with school-age children.
The synagogue’s rabbis and leaders all stressed that declining membership and the fear that neither shul could survive alone made the merger a necessity. Now as a congregation of about 500 families, they are in a stronger position to reach out to the unaffiliated. Levine said that the goal of outreach was the reason that the community seder held the second night of Passover was heavily subsidized; participants paid only $20 and perhaps one-third were not synagogue members.
“The seder was for those with no place to go,” he said. “We wanted the community to see us; both rabbis and cantors participated.”
When the congregation occasionally has a joint Friday night service, congregants alternate between using the Reform and Conservative prayer books.
“There is a difference in services, but not that great a difference,” Levine said. “People can be comfortable in either service because 75 to 85 percent of the service is almost identical.”
On Saturday mornings, a Conservative prayer service is held. There is a Reform service only if there is a bar or bat mitzvah; otherwise there is a Bagels and Bible study session in which participants study the Torah portion of the week while munching on lox, bagels, muffins and coffee.
Levine said he tried the Bagels and Bible program one week and is now hooked.
“Four or five of us [from the Conservative congregation] now do that and then join the Conservative service at 11,” he said.
Rabbi Schonblum recalled that one of his congregants “who would never hear music on a Friday night” once told him that he had enjoyed overhearing the musical instruments being played during the Reform Friday night service and planned to attend that service one week.
On Passover, the Conservative group observed the holiday the first two days and the last two days with services. The Reform group observed it with a service on the first day and the seventh day. That group then returned the eighth day for a joint Yizkor prayer service.
“We’re still experimenting,” Rabbi Aklepi said, adding that on Shavuot they may have a joint Yizkor service on the first day rather than on the traditional second day that the Reform do not observe.
Asked if she believes this merger might be a model for other struggling Conservative and Reform congregations, she replied: “They should try it if they are willing to try new things within the understanding of Jewish tradition and Jewish law. We’re not losing our identity as Conservative and Reform Jews.”