When members of Congregation Bet Breira in Miami attended an evening study session on Shavuot last week, it marked the first time their Reform congregation practiced the custom.
It was the first of many changes that will occur after members of a neighboring Conservative congregation move in as part of a seemingly unlikely merger that will take effect July 1. Bet Breira’s kitchen will become kosher; only glatt kosher meat will be served. And the religious school classes that had met on Saturdays will now meet on Sundays "so that everyone will feel comfortable," according to Rabbi Jaime Klein Aklepi, Bet Breira’s spiritual leader.
"There were things that we had done, such as coloring and cutting with the
little kids, that would not work with the observance of Shabbat," she explained.
But Rabbi Aklepi said that rather than merge with either of two neighboring Reform congregations, it was decided to merge with Temple Samu-El Or Olom, a Conservative synagogue four miles away, because "we both have the same mission and vision."
Rabbi David Schonblum, Or Olom’s spiritual leader, said that "vision" is to "include as many Jewish souls [as possible] and bring them back to their Jewish identity."
This merger will make at least the 12th congregation in the United States to have dual Reform and Conservative affiliation. There are also at least four other congregations that have dual Conservative and Reconstructionist affiliations.
Although dual-affiliated congregations have been around for years, observers believe the economic downturn may prompt more congregations to merge, regardless of affiliation. And given the increasing perception that differences between Conservative and Reform Jewry have narrowed over the years — an increasing use of Hebrew, kipot and tallitot in Reform synagogues and the admission of women and gays in the Conservative movement’s rabbinical school years after their acceptance by the Reform movement — dual affiliation may increase.
To be sure, there are still fundamental differences between the movements — including the definition of who is a Jew — but for some living in one-synagogue towns in Middle America, and even in some big cities like Miami, the distinction is often lost.
Although the top executives of both the Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism said they do not expect to see an increase in such mergers, others disagree.
Harry Silverman, director of United Synagogue’s Southeast region, said that although the Miami merger is the first of its kind in his region, others are inevitable.
"With declining memberships and the economy, it’s becoming more and more difficult to maintain small and medium-size congregations," he explained, referring to those with fewer than 400 members.
In the Miami merger, the Reform congregation has 350 members and the Conservative 240.
Jonathan Sarna, an expert on American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said that "if hard times continue, I do expect that in small communities that have two shaky congregations there will be pressure for these kinds of mergers. These examples will lead the way in how you can make it happen.
"Many of them believe the distinctions are artificial," Sarna pointed out. "This is a healthy reminder that sometimes these kinds of differences are much more important to rabbis than they are to congregants. This is especially true now when the Conservative and Reform movements are giving equal rights to women and the Reform prayer book has more Hebrew in it. It’s much easier to contemplate these types of mergers. And given the tough times, the savings of one rabbi, a building and support staff is enormous."
Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee’s national director of Contemporary Jewish Life, said he sees a confluence of two events that may make such mergers more frequent. First is "economic necessity" and second is the "conviction on the part of many Jewish leaders that denominations are not worth quarreling about. The issue is how Jewish you want to be, so let’s get them into the synagogue and deal with Jewishness. … It should not matter which siddur [prayer book] we use."
On the other hand, Bayme said, the "Jewish community would be well served by strong, established denominations that are passionate and committed about their respective ideologies and are willing to do battle over transmitting their belief system to the next generation."
In addition, he pointed out that although it is "healthy to see cooperation among Jews across denominational lines, that can’t come at a price of trivializing real denominational differences. As a Jewish community, we are very divided over who is a Jew. Jews find their way to denominations that affirm their Jewish status and their self-definition of what being a Jew means. And when you have a congregation that is traversing different movements, what do you do on the issue of matrilineal and patrilineal descent?"
On the Miami merger, Rabbi Schonblum of the Conservative synagogue said the Who is a Jew issue would not be a problem because his congregation has practiced patrilineal descent for five years. "We can’t enforce it … so we let it go," he said, referring to the Conservative movement’s requirement that children born to a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother convert to Judaism before their bar or bat mitzvahs.
Rabbi Schonblum said that once the synagogues merge, "we will speak a little bit more about conversion and bringing them closer [to Judaism]. This follows the whole keruv [outreach] package that was put out by United Synagogue. So after speaking with United Synagogue, they said, ‘Rabbi, just continue with what you are doing.’ I’m bringing in close to 50 or 60 people from my adult Torah study classes who are becoming closer to Judaism and understanding our Jewish traditions. It has been working. … You can’t enforce anything today on anybody."
Nevertheless, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards maintains, "Jewishness is defined through lineage or through conversion to Judaism." It adds that matrilineal descent – a child born to a Jewish mother — "has been the authoritative norm in Judaism for centuries."
But Rabbi Schonblum said he believes the "Conservative movement can’t discriminate anymore. We can’t go and say to somebody, ‘You are not accepted because you are not like we are.’ It doesn’t work."
He emphasized that he has been permitting the practice of patrilineal descent "under the knowledge" that the child will not be recognized as a Jew "anywhere outside of the Reform movement. If the kid goes to Israel, the kid’s not Jewish. If they want a Conservative conversion, it depends who the rabbi is whether in Israel he would be recognized as Jewish."
Rabbi Schonblum said he believes the merger will be a good match because neither congregation was growing, and that operating as a single entity would make them one strong congregation.
Michael Barondes, president of Congregation Bayt Shalom in Greenville, N.C., another congregation with Reform and Conservative affiliation, said the issue of patrilineal descent "is one of the toughest issues to deal with; it’s an emotional issue for a lot of people.
"Officially we can’t be part of the Conservative movement without recognizing that only matrilineal descent is allowed," he said. "Our policy is if somebody identifies himself as being Jewish, we don’t ask to see his family tree. … If people want to become members of our congregation, we welcome them."
Barondes pointed out that for much of the last 20 years his congregation — the only one in the area — had a Conservative rabbi. It had a Reconstructionist rabbi for the last couple of years and in a few weeks it will have a Reform rabbi, Alysa Stanton, the first black woman ordained by the Reform movement.
"The Conservative and Reconstructionist rabbis required conversion for children born of a non-Jewish mother," he said, referring to cases where the mother’s non-Jewish status became known.
Asked whether the Reform rabbi would also require it, Barondes replied: "We haven’t discussed it yet. … To a large extent, issues of halacha [Jewish law] are a rabbi’s decision. I think any decision has potential to be a problem, but our congregation is by and large flexible."
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism, said he expects to see synagogues engage in "different degrees of cooperation, such as sharing facilities, joint programming and purchasing that would be driven by financial necessity.
"In small-town America, the truth is that the luxury of two congregations is one we often cannot afford, and in economic hard times more than ever, congregations will look for ways to draw together," Rabbi Yoffie observed.
Asked if he foresaw a merger of the Reform and Conservative movements, he replied: "Not in the foreseeable future, but who knows where the winds of Jewish history will take us. Our lay leaders are often similar in religious outlook — they don’t have a clear theological commitment to a particular movement. For lay leaders, often it is a matter of religious style — more or less Hebrew, having a cantor. Those issues are more important than theological issues.
"But the Conservatives have a halachic philosophy and the Reform do not. That is the single most important difference. … The differences remain significant and you are not going to see the United Synagogue and the Union for Reform Judaism merging."
Harry Silverman, the Southeast regional director of United Synagogue, said he would expect to see more "strategic alliances" between synagogues.
One example of that is taking place in Canton, Ohio, 50 miles south of Cleveland, where the Conservative synagogue is being renovated with money from the sale of the 30,000-square-foot Reform synagogue and the 70,000-square-foot Jewish community center. When completed, it will be a 28,000-square-foot building that will be home to the Reform and Conservative congregations, the Jewish community center and the local Jewish federation.
"We realized eight years ago that the [Jewish] community was shrinking, that we had too much roof for the number of Jews here," said Edward Buxbaum, CEO and executive director of the Canton Jewish Community Federation. "It’s taken almost seven years getting people to agree that it needed to be done."
Some 30 years ago there were 3,000 Jews in Canton, today there are about 1,000.
"Our Jewish population is dying and moving away," Buxbaum said.
Plans call for the 130-member Conservative congregation and the 430-member Reform congregation to operate independently and to make equal use of the renovated building. There already is a kosher kitchen, so a non-kosher kitchen will be built for the Reform congregation.
"There will be separate [religious] services," Buxbaum said. "The Reform have a rabbi, the Conservatives have a cantor. On Friday night, the Reform will use the large sanctuary, but we think both will use the chapel more often."
He said that on the High Holy Days, the large sanctuary is able to accommodate 340 people, enough for the Reform congregation. And he said the chapel could be expanded to seat 180, sufficient for the needs of the Conservative congregation.
"The JCC has 600 members and maybe half are Jewish," Buxbaum noted. "But it will no longer have a pool and health club or gym" and membership is expected to drop.
It is not clear precisely how much these changes will save the Jewish community, Buxbaum said, "but we feel it will save the community hundreds of thousands of dollars."