Last week a letter went out to the members of Baltimore’s Temple Oheb Shalom and Owings Mills’ Har Sinai Congregation about the possibility of the two Reform congregations merging.
Mina Wender, president of Temple Oheb Shalom, said that the larger institution initiated the merger conversation with Har Sinai.
“We began to brainstorm and we realized that we’re at sort of a bare-bones budget and what we really needed was to have more congregants,” she said, adding that “more members would help us do the kind of programs that we’d like to do.”
Added Anne Berman, president of Har Sinai: “And Har Sinai said, ‘Let’s talk.’”
Five-person steering committees were formed at each congregation, made up of officers and board members to examine the mechanics of bringing the two historic congregations together.
Mergers are not uncommon across the country, as well as in Baltimore, as Reform congregations especially are seeing dips in membership. Last year, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation absorbed Temple Emanuel.
Temple Oheb Shalom, founded in 1853, has about 625 member families. Har Sinai, founded in 1842, has about 315 member families. A merged congregation would be close to a 1,000-member-family congregation.
Change was a word that came up often in a conversation earlier this week with Wender and Berman, and how the congregations needed to evolve if they are to survive, including rethinking what the synagogues offer to the community and how to attract more and younger congregants.
“We’re trying to look into the future and to try and see, what does a synagogue look like in five, 10, 15 years?” Wender said. “And we’re not sure it looks like what it looks like now.”
Berman said committee talks between the two congregations have been friendly and collegial, and included discussions on remaking the sanctuary into a more flexible space.
“Synagogues typically need the seats that go on and on and on into the far back of the building for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when most of the congregation more or less shows up. The rest of the year, wouldn’t it be nice to have cozy seating?” she said. “Where, rather than have a typical sermon, there’s more of a discussion of the parsha. And these things are being tried around the country because the old ways are not working. They’re not drawing in the millennials. I talk to my adult children. That’s not the service that they want.”
Wender said combining the two congregations would inspire new energy, resources and creativity “to tackle new ideas.”
Rabbi David Fine of the Union for Reform Judaism is consulting with the congregations on how to successfully navigate a possible congregational merge.
“It’s a long path. We aren’t going to rush through it. We’re going to take each issue and we’re going to study it together,” Berman said. “Rabbi David Fine has walked this path before, successfully, and he’s been a great assistance to us. We are following his advice.”
While both Wender and Berman said they have heard mostly positive responses to the merger idea, they said some congregants have expressed concern about the legacies of the two historic Reform congregations being lost.
“These were congregations that marched along with Martin Luther King,” Berman said. “These were congregations that helped desegregate Gwynn Oak Park. These were congregations that were on the forefront of the civil rights movement, and we will march into the future together, if all goes well.”
Wender agreed, adding, “We’re going to keep our history and our traditions, but we’re really looking to the future to see how we can engage more people.”
Wender and Berman said that after the holidays the congregations plan to involve more people in the process of deciding whether to merge and, if so, the best ways to make the transition. Both facilities will be examined to see which would suit a new merged congregation financially and program-wise.
Wender said staff and clergy contracts run through 2019 and some through 2020; if a merger takes place before those contracts end, all of the contracts will be honored.
“We both run with very bare-bones staffing. And I think we could probably keep everybody and not blink an eyelash because people are doing the jobs of many people,” Wender said. “We’re going to keep them. And then we’ll look at what it’s like to be a 1,000-member congregation and see what we need.”
Both women said the idea of merging won’t be foreign to many congregants because both synagogues are long- standing members of the greater Reform community.
“Our children go to schools together, we belong to the same organizations,” Berman said. “My next-door neighbors are members of Oheb Shalom. I got a very nice note from them saying, ‘We’ll be members in a deeper way than we are right now.’”
The congregations have been doing summer services, summer Torah study and winter services together for years, Wender said. “So we’re really kind of used to being together.”
“It’s a good timing and it’s a very positive move for the future,” Berman said. “We don’t know how it’s going to turn out in the end. But we’re hoping. And who knows, if it works out this will be a very good thing for the Reform community in Baltimore.”