Following a busy year of committee building, organization and energetic discussions of a possible merger between two of Baltimore’s historic Reform synagogues, Har Sinai Congregation announced recently it was ceasing merger talks with its erstwhile partner, Temple Oheb Shalom.
“During the month of July, the board of trustees of Har Sinai Congregation made a turning-point decision, to cease exploration of a merger with Temple Oheb Shalom, and to concentrate our efforts in finding a viable road map for Har Sinai Congregation in the future,” Har Sinai spiritual leader Rabbi Linda Joseph said in the congregation’s August newsletter “The Connection.”
After Har Sinai president Anne Berman formed committees and worked with them on the merger, which was announced last fall, a Future Committee was formed in May, tasked with looking into Har Sinai moving forward alone, Joseph said. That committee was formed the same month that Oheb Shalom’s Rabbi Steven M. Fink was suspended with pay following an allegation of sexual impropriety with a teen minor that occurred a number of years ago. Oheb Shalom subsequently announced in May it was temporarily suspending the merger talks.
“Temple Oheb Shalom has taken a pause in its talks with Har Sinai so that we can focus our attention on managing our own needs at this time,” a congregation spokesperson said in May. “We will continue to evaluate the potential merger with Har Sinai Congregation and expect to have additional details in the coming months.”
Oheb has since hired interim Rabbi Marc Disick.
Disick said in an August 7 email that Oheb president Mina Wender had reported on July 31 that Har Sinai was electing to place merger talks with Oheb Shalom on hold.
“Of course we are disappointed — but it takes two to make a merger. Ours is a resilient congregation that will take our sister congregation’s current decision in stride,” he said. “Also, one never knows what the future will hold. Our two congregations have enjoyed an amicable relationship for generations and we fully expect the warmth between our synagogues to continue.”
Meanwhile, Joseph said the Future Committee was looking at “models of success that would ensure a future for Har Sinai Congregation in a new form.”
The August newsletter led with an update by the synagogue’s Future Committee, headed by committee co-chairs Ken Bell and Debbi Jacobs, that spelled out strategies on moving forward and how to sustain a 60,000-square-foot building with a membership that has dwindled from 800 to about 260 households.
“Maintaining our 60,000-square foot building eats up almost one-third of Har Sinai’s operating budget. Our facility expenses are not sustainable in the long-term given the size of our congregation. We are living beyond our means,” the committee said. “While our building was intended to house 800 families, Har Sinai Congregation today has about 260 member households. The sale of the building is therefore a necessary step to ensuring our financial stability in the long term.”
Selling the building, the Future Committee decided, seemed a more likely successful scenario than the first option: trying to stay in the building, reduce expenses and increase revenue by leasing space.
“The second option is to sell the building and move to a smaller facility that meets the needs of the congregation, or move into a shared space,” the committee wrote.
To this end, the committee has solicited proposals from commercial real estate firms, with a final review of proposals scheduled for August 8. Following the review, the committee plans to make two recommendations to the synagogue’s executive committee to select a firm and to choose a listing price of the building.
The synagogue is required to offer the building for sale to the school leasing space in the building. If the school declines, Har Sinai’s building will be listed on the open market. The process could take up to a year.
Maintaining our 60,000-square foot building eats up almost one-third of Har Sinai’s operating budget. Our facility expenses are not sustainable in the long-term given the size of our congregation. — Har Sinai Future Committee
“Should we sell the building, that decision does not spell the end of our congregation,” the committee said. “Our 176-year-old congregation has called five different spaces home in its long history. Selling the building reflects our need to occupy a space which makes sense given the size of our congregation today, in 2018.”
The board of trustees has been in small-group discussions about the future of Har Sinai and envisioning the “right space for our future.” In addition, the synagogue is seeking advice from the Union of Reform Judaism on how best to proceed with its downsizing. Congregation-wide meetings will be held for input from the Har Sinai community.
Joseph said she is optimistic about the future of Har Sinai.
“As a member of the Future Committee, I am excited about the progress of their work, the options they have been exploring and the opportunity to create something new that honors our past, solidifies our future and envisions infinite possibility,” Joseph said.
She urged members to get involved by reading the committee’s monthly reports and emails and participating in congregational meetings to express their ideas and concerns.