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The New Business Of N.Y. Shuls: Synagogue Mergers

The New Business Of N.Y. Shuls: Synagogue Mergers

Members of two Conservative synagogues in Westchester, one in Mt. Vernon and the other about six miles away in Tuckahoe, watched over the years as the Jewish community gradually drifted north to Scarsdale and their aging congregations shrunk. In 1998 the two congregations merged, sold their buildings and relocated to Scarsdale.
Today, their new congregation, Shaarei Tikvah, the Scarsdale Conservative Congregation, is not only flourishing but is in the process of building a new $7 million synagogue.
In Queens, three Conservative congregations merged in January 2004 because changing demographics caused two of them to lose members and the third had financial difficulties. Today the new congregation, known as the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Fresh Meadows, is in sound financial shape after two of the congregations sold their buildings and its membership is growing.
Last month, two Reform congregations — one in Jamaica and the other in New Hyde Park, L.I. — merged out of fear they could not survive alone because of demographic changes.
“Rosh HaShanah was amazing,” said Rabbi Valerie Lieber. “We had a packed house. It was exciting for everybody to feel the energy and the beauty of those hours together. It was greater than I could have ever imagined.”
The three new congregations are examples of synagogue mergers that appear to have worked, contrary to the popular belief that synagogue mergers are signs of failing congregations acting out of desperation. And while area-wide demographic changes suggest a Jewish community that is retrenching, the new mergers show that in some pockets, under the right circumstances, one plus one can equal three, so to speak.
“I tell synagogues that are talking of merging that if they do it at the right time, this is not the end but the beginning,” said Bruce Greenfield, executive director of the Metropolitan Region of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. “It’s a new step in their lives and that they should look at it as a positive thing — a course adjustment in the life of the congregation.”
Eli Hevi, who grew up Orthodox in Israel and moved to the United States in 1993 when he was 30, said he and his wife joined Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale last year after being won over by its Hebrew school.
“We fell in love with the director of the Hebrew school – her devotion and the program itself,” he said. “We believe in education; this is our priority. Then we met the rabbi and we saw that more and more young families were joining the congregation and that it was offering interesting programs.”
Greenfield said the attraction of new families joining adds to the vitality of a congregation. “People like being a part of something that is growing and vibrant,” he continued. “A small congregation does not have a lot of programs. Nobody wants to be part of a congregation that does not have people and in which nothing is happening … The Wantagh Jewish Center on Long Island [recently merged with the Farmingdale Jewish Center] had to rent a tent for the holidays. All of a sudden there was a vibrancy that had not been there before and people wanted to be a part of it.”
Greenfield added: “People will bring in people. From one congregation of 100 and another of 100 you get a combined congregation of 300 because [other] people see vibrancy and strength.”
Orthodox congregations rarely merge because their members have to be within walking distance of the synagogue. But Reform congregants do ride to synagogue and there have been at least three Reform synagogue mergers in the last 10 years, according to Eric B. Stark, director of the Union for Reform Judaism’s Greater New York Council.
In addition to the merger of the Reform synagogues in Jamaica and New Hyde Park, Stark said that about three years ago Reform synagogues in Borough Park and Bensonhurst merged. And he said the Suburban Temple of Wantagh, L.I., and Temple Judea of Massapequa, L.I., are also merging.
“We have now five other congregations in the process of merging, and I can think of one or two others that are contemplating it — some with more than two partners,” Stark said.
As with mergers of Conservative congregations, Stark said the mergers are primarily driven by demographic changes.
As many as a dozen more congregations on Long Island are said to be in negotiations to merge. In fact, the concern about a declining Jewish population on Long Island has prompted the Long Island Board of Rabbis to hold a special meeting on the subject next month.
Stark stressed that for mergers to work, they must “maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses, otherwise they are better off not being together. Think of it like a bad marriage. … If they are merging just for the sake of merging, that is not good. By and large [bad matches] fall apart in the dating stage when they are working out the issues. But if they can work out the issues and build on their strengths, it can create a stronger and viable community.”
Stark cautioned that growth in membership may not come instantly after a merger. What will be achieved, he said, is stability and a “critical enough mass that you can engage in programs and hire a staff and do all the things a vibrant congregation does.”
Two Rabbis, One Shul
Among the issues congregations must work out before they merge is what to do with their respective clergy. In the most recent merger, both Rabbi Valerie Lieber of Temple Israel of Jamaica and Rabbi Randy Sheinberg of Temple Emanuel of New Hyde Park have been asked to stay on to co-officiate for their combined congregation, called Temple Israel-Temple Emanuel and housed in Temple Emanuel’s building.
“I’ve never heard of this happening before, but both congregations liked their rabbis and felt this was an important way to make sure everybody felt at home and was able to connect to the rabbis they cared about,” Rabbi Lieber said. “And it gives us opportunities to do much more.”
Thus, on the High Holy Days, while one rabbi conducted services for the adults, the other conducted services for high school students.
Rabbi Sheinberg pointed out that the true measure of the merger’s success is the number of people who come on Shabbat and “participate in adult ed, in our religious school and in our other programs.”
She pointed out that the two congregations started running joint services in August and since then “we have probably tripled the number of people attending services compared to last summer. … There is a lot of interest and curiosity about the effect of the merger on us and people are coming to see.
“The beginning is easy,” Rabbi Sheinberg continued. “If you make any change, the energy level goes up and people become more connected. The real test will be what we make of it — what we do to sustain their interest.”
Rabbi Sheinberg agreed with Greenfield about the key to a successful merger.
“We were aware that if we waited too long, it would have been too late,” she said. “We wanted two healthy communities that in a merger would become even more attractive. We didn’t want to be carrying dead weight.”
It was decided to use the New Hyde Park synagogue for the merger because it is “fairly central to Queens and Nassau and we thought we might be able to attract people from both [counties],” Rabbi Sheinberg said.
Asked about co-officiating, she said she is “very hopeful and excited. It’s wonderful to be able to think creatively about what we want to do. It was hard preparing for the High Holy Days because merging two cultures is much more complicated. We wanted something that looked seamless to the congregants, that allowed them to feel that they belonged here. We like to accommodate everyone.”
Rabbi Lieber said she and Rabbi Sheinberg are “both graduates of Hebrew Union College — I graduated in 1995 and she in 2000. She is married and has one kid and I am married and have no children. I am gay and had a Jewish wedding.”
Asked how she was received by congregants at Temple Emanuel, Rabbi Lieber said they have been “warm and welcoming. Temple Emanuel has a history of being open-minded, as has Temple Israel.”
Going Egalitarian
That same kind of open-mindedness is what made the merger of the three Conservative congregations in Queens succeed, according to Mark Freilich, president of the Israel Center of Conservative Judaism in Fresh Meadows. He explained that two of the three merging synagogues — the Electchester Jewish Center and the Israel Center of Hillcrest Manor — had a traditional Conservative approach to Judaism while the third, the Conservative Synagogue of Jamaica Estates, was egalitarian.
“We knew that if we did not all go egalitarian, we couldn’t grow and the merger would not take place because Jamaica would not have come,” he said. “Jamaica had young families and children and it was a big ingredient in the merger. … So we became egalitarian for our own survival. This was not just a money thing; it was a people thing.”
It took about six months to convince the congregants at both traditional synagogues that the egalitarian approach had to be adopted. And when it came time to vote, Freilich said about 90 percent of all the members agreed.
“After they got educated, they voted for it because they saw it was a matter of everybody’s mutual survival,” he said. “But few if any did not come over because of the egalitarian issue. … It wasn’t easy. Many people had deep-rooted feelings. But today, four years later, it’s like nothing with nothing.”
In addition, Freilich said “it was very tough for people who had been in their congregation and had life cycle events there to leave their buildings. We did it delicately and looked at everybody’s sensitivities and made sure we had the support of people when we did things.”
The merged congregations today are financially stable, maintaining their membership, have a youth group and a “Hebrew school that started with hardly anyone now has 30 [pupils],” Freilich observed. “We have hired a new administrator and hopefully the rest of the community will come. And we now have adult ed programs and a choir, as well as a pool and a gym that nobody had used before. That’s why the merger ended up as a good fit.”
One more thing that had to be decided upon: what to do with all of the memorial plaques. Freilich said the plaques bought by active members of all the congregations have been erected in the merged building’s main sanctuary. But he said there are another 2,700 plaques bought by inactive members and that they will be mounted in the chapel.
Because one of the congregation’s rabbis wanted to retire and the other two were not egalitarian, Freilich said it was agreed that a new rabbi, Matthew Futterman, would be hired. And because only Jamaica had a full-time cantor, Haim Levy, he was retained.
“His presence helped convince people to come who had ties with him,” Freilich said.
Not An Easy Fit
The 1998 merger of the two Conservative congregations in Westchester was also a difficult fit for some, according to Arthur Glauberman, president of the newly merged congregation, Shaarei Tikvah, the Scarsdale Conservative Congregation. It was a merger of Genesis Agudas Achim in Tuckahoe — a liberal congregation with a mean age in their 50s and 60s that at one time had a woman rabbi and had memorial plaques for John F. Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt — and Emanu-El Jewish Center in Mount Vernon, a traditional congregation with a mean age in their 70s and 80s.
“Genesis had 12 kids in the Hebrew school and Emanu-El had no Hebrew school,” he said. “Emanu-El had no cantor and no rabbi, only a ritual director who led services and read Torah. Genesis had a rabbi and a cantor. Both congregations had houses for rabbis.”
When they merged after realizing that no young Jewish families were moving in, they sold their property and used the money to buy a church five miles to the north in Scarsdale.
But Glauberman said that for many congregants the merger of such disparate congregations did not work and that many left “when they realized they preferred their old synagogues.” He said that of the 175 member families today, perhaps 60 were from the original synagogues.
“While the merger may have started off based on wishful thinking that everything would be fine — even though people shared different philosophies — people adjusted and some left while others joined,” he said. “If you are thinking of merging a synagogue that is very much to the left with one that is very much to the right, it might not work. … But to survive you have to move on.”
The new congregation has adopted a liberal attitude towards intermarriage. Non-Jewish spouses are allowed to chair synagogue committees — the PTA president, for instance, is not Jewish — but they may not be an officer or vote.
Because the church building does not meet their needs — it has 12 bathrooms but no classrooms — the congregation is building a $7 million synagogue in the parking lot. Stained glass windows that had adorned Temple Emanu-el and are now in storage will be erected in the new synagogue.
“We have gained more than we have lost,” Glauberman observed. “We have finally recovered from the merger. Until two or three years ago, we had to give honors to members from Genesis and Emanu-el. We don’t do that anymore. We are just one community. And next September we will be in a new building. We are growing and building a spiritual community that will thrive in our new structure.”
Eli Hevi is part of that growth. A Yeminite Israeli who moved to Scarsdale in 2002, Hevi said he is enjoying being part of a congregation that is building a new home. “I donated a digital screen that previews future events” at the synagogue, he said. “I’m involved from the bottom of my heart. I love it. My wife says I’ll become president.”
“I see my kids coming home from Hebrew school singing ‘Ma Tovu,’” Hevi added, referring to a Hebrew prayer traditionally sung upon entering the sanctuary in the morning. “That’s what I want to see. That’s what makes the day for me. Nothing beats this type of program for the kids.”

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