Pandemic brings ‘sister shuls’ closer

Beth Shalom Congregation
The entrance of Beth Shalom Congregation (Photo by Sharonschreiberg is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

By Suzanne Pollak

Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia and Shaare Tefila Congregation in Olney are about 25 minutes apart by car. But when it comes to virtual programming and youth activities, the two Conservative synagogues are much closer.

In December 2019, the two Conservative congregations agreed to collaborate on a few programs. They dubbed themselves “sister shuls.”

Then the coronavirus hit. Both synagogues closed their doors and turned to Zoom for services, social activities and their religious schools. But through it all, they continued their connection, publicized each other’s events and opened them up to members of both synagogues.

Their buildings are still closed, but the synagogues’ leaders recently agreed to strengthen ties. It is a journey many congregations in the Conservative movement have been investigating.

About 16% of American Jews identified with the Conservative movement in 2017, down from 33% in 2003, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

To stay viable, spiritually and financially, Beth Shalom and Shaare Tefila are preparing to blend their religious schools and other activities.

According to a newsletter recently sent to Shaare Tefila members, “We have established a joint Shaare Tefila-Beth Shalom team dedicated to explore more ways to partner and work together. A key element of this exploration will be engaging in joint activities while we build strong connections and compatibility between our respective communities, and generally get to know each other.”

A trivia night, with details about each synagogue as the trivia, is planned as an ice breaker on March 14.

Beth Shalom President Tammy Lawrence grew up at Shaare Tefila. “It’s kind of cool to see congregants who knew me as a kid,” said Lawrence, who lives in Howard County. “It’s wonderful to have a synagogue which is similar to ours to partner with. Both synagogues do great programs, and now congregants have better opportunities.”

For instance, Beth Shalom offers a nightly minyan, which Shaare Tefila does not. And Shaare Tefila has weekly Havdalah services, unlike Beth Shalom. Now, congregants from either synagogue can attend any of them virtually.

Beth Shalom, with 300 family units, has a larger religious school than Shaare Tefila, with 250 family units, which has more active youth groups. By combining these programs, children will have more opportunity to interact with their peers, said Perry Sandler, president of Shaare Tefila.

“We’ve also been trying to brainstorm about engagement and membership to solve problems that many Conservative synagogues have,” Lawrence added.

Another goal is reducing expenses.

The pandemic has made the distance between the synagogues seem less important.

“As my rabbi [Jonah Layman] put it, Zoom is here to stay, and we thought we could exploit that and save money at the same time,” Sandler said.

(Rabbi Susan Grossman is the spiritual leader at Beth Shalom.)

So far, it has worked out well, Sandler said. “We felt comfortable and they felt comfortable with us.”

The boards of directors from both synagogues are looking into ways to blend their sisterhoods and men’s clubs.

“Our two congregations look forward to developing and jointly engaging in adult education, social action projects, social events, religious services, religious school, and family and youth programs,” according to Shaare Tefila’s newsletter.

There are no plans to merge, Sandler and Lawrence say. The Shaare Tefila newsletter was equally emphatic: “There are NO plans or discussions at this time to do so.”

That was just after it said, “Down the road, we may consider combining our congregations.”

Correction, March 15, 3:30 p.m.: The  name of Shaare Tefila’s president, Perry Sandler, was corrected. So was one incorrect spelling of Shaare Tefila’s name.

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  1. Unfortunately, your paper republished this article from the Washington Jewish Week word for word, including the President of Shaare Tefila being given an incorrect last name! His name is Perry Sandler – please issue a correction. Additionally, the reporter was inconsistent and called Shaare Tefila by another synagogue’s name in the middle of the article when they mentioned Shaare Torah which is in Gaithersburg.


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