About 10 months after Temple Oheb Shalom in Pikesville and Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills put their well-developed merger process on hold, the two Reform congregations are back at it, revamping their plans and moving full steam ahead under the leadership of two new congregation presidents.
With dwindling membership and two large facilities to support, the two congregations began seriously exploring a merger in the fall of 2017 when a letter went out to both congregations and steering committees were formed to begin the process.
But nine months later, after making much headway, the process was put on hold in August of 2018 when Temple Oheb Shalom began a contentious period of investigation and removal of its longtime rabbi.
However, with the recent settlement of issues with the rabbi, the merger process is back on with new congregation presidents at the helm: Vicki Spira at Oheb Shalom and Kenneth Bell at Har Sinai.
At the end of April, Spira and Bell released a letter outlining the recent work of the Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Joint Task Force, formed in January of 2018, and what the combined group is formulating to join the two historic Reform congregations.
The presidents and task force members of the 166-year-old Oheb Shalom and the 177-year-old Har Sinai said in the letter that the merging of the two congregations would bring membership to about 750 households, which would offer “the strength of a larger congregation and provide an environment that fosters close-knit relationships,” as well as “enhanced worship, education and programming.”
After consideration of the two facilities and their properties, the task force decided that the new combined congregation would be housed at Temple Oheb Shalom’s synagogue at 7310 Park Heights Ave. in Pikesville. Oheb Shalom was founded in 1853 and after multiple locations in Baltimore, built and moved to the current facility in 1960. Har Sinai, established in 1842 is the oldest continuously Reform Jewish Congregation in the U.S., and, like Oheb Shalom, had multiple homes prior to building its current facility in 2002 at 2905 Walnut Ave. in Owings Mills.
Plans call for a joint working group in the coming months to ensure that the merger retains the unique histories of both congregations, including preserving “sacred cherished objects and recognition elements.”
Har Sinai Congregation president Bell, who began his tenure in November, said the process is “going very well.”
“Both boards are very supportive and the congregation seems to be very supportive,” he said. “Each congregation held a town hall meeting in April and both congregations got very good response from the members.”
The joint task force recommended a 25-member board of trustees made up of 15 members from Oheb Shalom and 10 from Har Sinai to serve for the first two years of the merged congregation, led by a seven-member executive committee.
Part of the merger would be a “visioning process” that would look toward the future with the selection of new clergy and a new name, both to be established by the fall and summer of 2020, respectively.
Currently, both congregations have interim rabbis. Rabbi Marc L. Disick became interim at Oheb Shalom when Oheb’s former rabbi was suspended and his contract terminated.
Har Sinai just signed a contract with their new interim, Rabbi David Katz, on May 19, as Rabbi Linda Joseph decided last fall not to renew her contract there.
Both interim rabbis are to serve at the new merged congregation until a new permanent rabbi is found, with an anticipated date of summer 2020.
Both boards voted to support the joint task force recommendations, and signed a Letter of Intent to Merge on May 14. The task force will move ahead, tackling financial and legal issues, beginning the visioning process, forming a transitional board and joint committees on integration issues, with a projected date of September 22, 2019, for a congregational vote to approve the merger.
One of the things Bell said has been handled differently from the earlier merger process is moving the process along more quickly.
“We’ve been meeting close to every two weeks and when we meet, meetings are a minimum of three hours and some have been upwards of six hours,” Bell said. “So we’ve been putting a lot of effort into it. After the town hall meeting, the Joint Task Force drafted the letter of intent that went through many revisions. Then it was presented to the Board of Trustees of both congregations individually on the evening of May 14. Both boards approved it unanimously. After the meeting, I drove over to Oheb, and their president, Vicki Spira, and I both signed it right then.”
For Spira, the merger is an “exciting opportunity” for both Temple Oheb Shalom and Har Sinai Congregation “to create a vibrant future together.”
“The two congregations have so much in common,” she said. “Signing the letter of intent is an important milestone. There is much work to be done and we know that a healthy process relies on congregational involvement.”