To say that Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation has a long history is no overstatement.
“Our congregations, Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom, were stalwarts of the Reform movement when it started here in America,” said interim Rabbi Jennifer Weiner of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation, which formed from the merger of the two historic synagogues in September 2019, one year ago. “We’re building on that, and we’re building on the shoulders of those who came before us.”
Temple Oheb Shalom was founded seven years before the Civil War in 1853. As for Har Sinai Congregation, it was established 11 years before that, in 1842, making it the “oldest continuously Reform Jewish Congregation in the United States,” according to the synagogue’s website.
Weiner began her current post on July 1, and she expressed how the congregation’s long legacy drew her to the position. Previously, she served as the director of education at Bethesda Jewish Congregation.
As the interim rabbi of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom, Weiner plans “to help the congregation find its way forward and look towards a very bright future, a very strong future, a time when we can all be together,” she said.
“To be standing on that bima, where all those rabbis who were founders of Reform Judaism in America [had stood],” Weiner said, “and I can’t even imagine how many thousands of congregants stood before me, you feel it. You feel their presence, and you understand the importance that they played in American Judaism.”
The congregation now uses the Oheb Shalom building, while the Har Sinai building has since been acquired by another synagogue, Weiner said.
The merger was officially approved in September 2019 following its approval in a vote by a 97% to 98% majority, said Co-President Ken Bell.
“We actually marched one of the Torahs from the Har Sinai building to the Oheb building,” he said, describing that 7-mile-long hike he took in November 2019. “And when we got there, we actually had a sort of a marriage ceremony, and under the chuppah we signed a ketubah, marrying the two congregations together.”
The two legacy congregations decided that the interim board of the merged congregation would include 15 members from legacy Oheb Shalom and 10 members from legacy Har Sinai, said Bell. The executive committee, meanwhile, would consist of two co-presidents, two vice presidents, two co-treasurers and a secretary, with four spots taken by legacy Oheb Shalom and three from legacy Har Sinai. The interim board is expected to run until June 30, 2021, by which point elections for new board members and new executive committee members, set for the next annual meeting, will have taken place.
While Bell was unable to say at what point that annual meeting would be, he confirmed that he would not be running for another term as president, as the bylaws state a president can only serve a single term.
With each congregation having such a long legacy, members of the congregation continue to look to the past with great fondness. While Weiner said the two congregations had “blended very well together,” she nonetheless acknowledged that “you may still hear someone say ‘I’m legacy Har Sinai. I’m legacy Oheb Shalom.’”
Rather than a cause for concern, though, Weiner views this perspective as proof of how proud some congregants are to be able to trace their membership as far back as nearly a half-dozen generations, and emphasized the importance of remembering that storied history.
A commitment to social justice
Expressing confidence that the merger has been going quite well, Weiner said she saw many benefits that have arisen from it. This included a larger staff, a larger community and more opportunities to further the social action and social justice work that both legacy congregations have been involved in.
This includes the shul’s partnership with a local church to create a socially distanced drive-by food drive, providing food for more than 400 people.
Another project, Backpacks for Kids, helps provide food-insecure families with backpacks holding a weekend’s worth of food in them, Weiner said. She explained that the food is placed in backpacks to prevent recipient students from being singled out by their classmates.
When asked what challenges the merger has seen so far, Weiner’s answer was not surprising. “The merger happened, and then we went into quarantine,” she said. “Purim was the last time that we’ve been together in person as a congregation.”
While Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom is hardly the only shul that has had to adjust to the pandemic, most did not have to do so while still in the middle of fusing two once-distinct communities.
Despite this hurdle, Weiner took heart from the number of people who were attending virtual services (no less than 90 a week, she estimated), and from how the families of the merged synagogue were “coming together and creating just this beautiful community,” she said.
Like every synagogue, Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom is determining how to maintain community safety while preparing for the High Holidays, when shuls are commonly filled to the brim with congregants. Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom decided to make this year’s services primarily virtual, along with a few in-person events like a socially distanced tashlich that will conclude with a social action project, Weiner said. She added that the congregation is filming a significant amount of their High Holidays services ahead of time.
Focusing on what she views as the silver lining, Weiner emphasized that the pandemic has allowed for certain programming that would not have been possible previously. This includes Zoom meals, where congregants will be able to share meals with each other virtually, as well as music, a social justice service, an “ask the rabbi” session and even yoga, all shared online. These online offerings will remain available for some time after being initially posted, she said, giving those unable to initially participate the chance to view them afterward.
A day in the life
In addition to assisting with High Holiday preparations, Weiner’s day to day work as a rabbi entails meeting with individual congregants and large groups like The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore, overseeing the shul’s social justice projects, making remote pastoral calls, planning educational classes and helping to launch the shul’s online religious school, morning minyans and Friday night services.
She estimated a typical working day for her can last from 10 to 14 hours.
Despite the long hours, Weiner emphasized how she fundamentally found the work “exciting, because there is no typical day.”
A bridge to the future
Weiner said that part of her role involves helping the congregation find a long-term, “settled” rabbi, which she hopes to achieve by the summer of next year.
Bell explained that the congregation originally hoped to have found a permanent rabbi by this point, but the committee searching for a permanent rabbi was suspended by the pandemic. He hopes the search will begin again after the High Holidays.
Similarly, Bell said that the congregation is in the process of voting on a new name for the synagogue, which had not yet been decided on when this article went to print.
Weiner said she was looking forward to meeting that future rabbi. Whoever they might be, she said, “they’re going to inherit an amazing congregation.”