In a letter Tuesday to Temple Oheb Shalom congregants, the Reform Pikesville synagogue’s senior Rabbi Steven M. Fink and congregation president Mina Wender announced a possible merger with Har Sinai Congregation, a Reform synagogue in Owings Mills led by Rabbi Linda Joseph.
The September 12 letter said Oheb Shalom was creating a “strategic partnership between two historic and proud congregations” with an eye to building a stronger Reform community through the collaboration.
“We recognize the unique identities and contributions of these two congregations,” the letter said. “In the months to come, teams from each congregation will be working together diligently to work through the important details in order to bring this exciting possibility of merging our two congregations to fruition.”
Five-person steering committees have been formed at each congregation, made up of officers and board members.
Both congregations have long histories in Baltimore, having been founded in the mid-1800s, Oheb Shalom in 1853, while Har Sinai, founded in 1842, claims the mantle of “the oldest continuously Reform Jewish Congregation in the United States,” according to its website.
In light of recent studies showing membership at Reform congregations dropping, shuls across the country are merging instead of closing. A quick Google search of “Reform congregations merging” unearths a number of stories about mergers that illustrates the trend is not new.
A 2007 New York Times article (“Synagogues Are Merging, Delicately, as Jews Move,” Sept. 11, 2007) notes that mergers, not a new phenomenon 10 years ago, were become increasingly common “in historically Jewish metropolitan areas across the country like Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles, as fewer Jews affiliate with synagogues, congregations age and the overall population, Jewish and not, shifts from the Northeast to the South and Southwest.”
“There are simply too many synagogues, and not enough people,” Bruce F. Greenfield, executive director of the New York metropolitan region of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, told the Times. “Especially in places that attracted large Jewish populations 50 and 60 years ago.”
Last year, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation absorbed Temple Emanuel.
In his December 2015 Rabbi’s Annual Report, Temple Oheb Shalom’s Rabbi Fink had this to say of Baltimore’s shrinking Reform congregations:
“I can offer you a tentative prediction of what will happen in the next five years with the caveat that only God knows what the future will bring.
“The committed Reform Jewish community in Baltimore will to continue to shrink. Those who leave our synagogues do not usually affiliate any[where] else, joining the majority of Baltimore Jews who are unaffiliated. At one time, we made up well over a third of Baltimore’s affiliated Jews. I suggest that today the number is closer to 20-25 percent. We simply cannot maintain four active synagogues and the staff that requires. Temple Emanuel is the first casualty of this contraction, having to sell their building and rent space from Conservative Beth Israel in Owings Mills. The survival of this 60-year-old congregation is much in doubt. The rabbis of both Temple Emanuel and Har Sinai are leaving at the end of this fiscal year, leaving both congregations in transition.
“That is not to say that the two southern-most Reform synagogues, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation and Temple Oheb Shalom, do not have financial challenges, but I can confidently report that we are both quite stable. We, in particular, are in a good place. We are a vibrant and healthy congregation. Our membership is stable and the number of young families is growing exponentially.”
Har Sinai officials said they would release a statement today about the possible merger.