Reimagining Reform

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Congregation presidents Anne Berman of Har Sinai, left, and Mina Wender of Temple Oheb Shalom (David Stuck photo)

The whole idea started with a conversation. A group of Temple Oheb Shalom members were talking about the future and one approached a member of Har Sinai Congregation to talk over dinner about whether merging the two historic congregations might make sense. This was in light of a prevailing tide of change and overall drops in Jewish engagement, as not just Jews, but the faithful of many stripes become more secular.

If you’re a Jew living in Baltimore, the numbers presented by The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore’s 2010 Greater Baltimore Jewish Community Study might have been surprising. The study reported that from 1999 to 2010, the percentage of Baltimore Jewish respondents who identified as Reform dropped from 36 to 27 percent; those identifying as Conservative dropped from 33 to 30 percent; and those who identified as Orthodox grew from 17 to 21 percent.


But according to Pew Research Center research from 2013 and 2015, the percentages of American Jews identifying as Reform went up from 35 percent in 2013 to 44 percent in 2015. In the 2015 study, 22 percent of American Jews identified with Conservative Judaism, 14 percent with Orthodox Judaism, 5 percent with other Jewish movements and 16 percent with no particular Jewish denomination.

“I would not think that we should be dramatically pessimistic,” said Jonathan D. Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “When you look at the Pew numbers and compare Reform and Conservative, while the Conservative movement has lost huge numbers of adherents and it really saw as dramatic a decline as we have ever seen in America in a Jewish religious movement, that is not true of the Reform movement. But I think after a period of rather dramatic growth, the Reform movement has significantly fallen back and I think it is in some ways searching for a direction that will reverse that trend, bring young millennials back into the Reform movement and so on.”

“Congregations are looking at each other and saying, ‘We can be more efficient if we work together than if we work apart.’” — Anne Berman, president of Har Sinai Congregation

The loss of Reform members could be attributed to a number of things, including the 2008 recession, people marrying later or not at all, and intermarriage, Sarna said. And according to Pew, secularization has been increasing through the generations, so while the percentages of American Jews identifying as Reform may be rising, the overall numbers of people identifying as Jewish by religion has been declining.

The Reform movement is therefore seeing a mixed bag, with some congregations losing members and others going strong. In 2016, Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation formerly based in Reisterstown, was absorbed by Baltimore Hebrew Congregation in Pikesville. At the time, Emanuel’s congregation president David Beller described the transition as “bittersweet.”

“We reached the point where remaining independent was no longer in our best interest,” said Beller. “Baltimore Hebrew presented the best option for our membership to transition into an active center of Jewish life in a meaningful way.”

Rabbi Gustav Buchdahl, a legend in the Baltimore Reform community and now Emanuel Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, led Temple Emanuel from 1963 to 2000. He described the congregation and its absorption in a positive light.

“For over half a century, Temple Emanuel’s members created a community for Jews in the Liberty Road corridor,” he said via email. “They engaged each other intellectually and aesthetically. Social action was one of its major hallmarks. Housing, public accommodations, the Vietnam War, race relations dominated decades of participation. Shabbat services were phenomenally well attended. Emanuel brought to Baltimore historians, philosophers and theologians who challenged the congregation. It was an exciting time.”

But Buchdahl said that the volatile economy and changing demographics made the institution vulnerable.

“The synagogue as we knew it accomplished its purpose,” he said. “The transition to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation has exceeded any expectation I may have had. The Emanuel alumni (as we call them) has been integrated smoothly into the life of BHC. The rabbis, cantors, administrators and congregants have made us feel very much at home. I hope that our sister congregations fare as well.”

A Proposed Merger

The presidents of the 165-year-old Temple Oheb Shalom and the 176-year-old Har Sinai hope that a merger, should it happen, would make for one stronger community, while retaining the singular identity of each congregation.

“We’ve been working on it almost a year at this point, since the first contact was made by a member of Oheb to Har Sinai and it just got the ball started rolling,” said Har Sinai president Anne Berman. “This sort of thing is happening all over the country, where membership is declining and congregations are looking at each other and saying, ‘With this going on, we can be stronger and we can be better. We can be more efficient if we work together than if we work apart.’ And once we got started talking, it made a lot of sense.”

It was Oheb Shalom that first made the announcement last September, when letters went out to both congregations that a dialogue would be started on the possibility of merging.

“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,” Oheb Shalom president Mina Wender said at the time, adding that “more members would help us do the kind of programs that we’d like to do.”

Har Sinai Congregation (David Stuck photo)

With memberships at Oheb Shalom and Har Sinai at 625 and 315, respectively, a combined congregation would be close to 1,000 members, a number more likely to be able to support a large facility and grounds, which both congregations have.

Last fall, after the announce- ment was made, two five- member steering committees were formed at each congregation, headed by Wender and Berman, after which a younger cohort of two was added to each committee.

Since then, with advice from Rabbi David Fine of the Union for Reform Judaism, about a dozen subcommittees have been staffed with members from both congregations. Committee topics include vision/mission/strategic planning, ritual/worship, governance, facilities and cemetery, finance and legal, communication and marketing, education, staffing models, membership engagement/development, community interests/auxiliaries and integration. Those committees may be tweaked or added to as the process moves along.

“First of all, we worked together with our board to adopt a memorandum of understanding, which really set us off on the path. Now we’re ready to get started with the nitty-gritty,” said Wender. “Within the month, the definitive work of the committees will get started.”

Rabbi Steven M. Fink, Temple Oheb Shalom (File photo)

Meanwhile, over the past year or so, a renewed effort has been made to have combined events between the two congregations, though the two have long been connected, said Oheb Shalom’s Rabbi Steven M. Fink.

“We’ve done summer services with Har Sinai for the last hundred years in July and August. So that gives us a very significant track record in terms of relationships,” he said. “We’re doing an Erev Pesach service together, we’re doing Slichot together. So, we’re doing a lot of things together.”

Fink said that the Reform movement is continuing its mission of increasing its diversity, which Oheb Shalom will continue into the future.

“So, we’re a big umbrella movement. We’re doing our very best to bring all Jews into the fold — and those who want to be Jewish, for that matter,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we’re very heavy with young families. It’s a wonderful thing that we have. We have lots of kids in the religious school, so we’re doing something right. I think we’re a warm and engaging congregation and we’re very inclusive. We have young families and families of all kinds, intermarried families, gay families, transgender families, biracial families.”

Reform rabbis read from the Torah at the recent CCAR 2018 convention. From left: Rabbi Mari Chernow from Phoenix; Rabbi Philip Posner from Santa Cruz, California; Lori Levine, a rabbinical student from Los Angeles;and Rabbi Jeffrey Saxe of Falls Church, Virginia. (Courtesy CCAR)

Remaining Relevant

Strengthening congregations, audacious hospitality, tikkun olam, youth engagement. These goals could be the collective charge of any Jewish movement, but these are the stated priorities of the Union for Reform Judaism that represents congregations across the U.S. and Canada.

At the Central Conference of American Rabbis last month in Irvine, California, the emphasis was on how to grow and develop as a relevant movement today.

“The conversation is about having a vision as a movement, having vision as individual rabbis, as a Reform rabbinate, having congregations that are relevant to our members’ lives and opening doors that are otherwise closed,” said Rabbi Craig Axler of Temple Isaiah in Howard County. “All of these things that are really hallmarks of the Reform movement.”

Highlights from the CCAR convention illustrate the breadth of Reform Judaism’s involvement with social issues while also focusing on traditional Judaism. The gathering included sessions on gun violence prevention, healthcare, in-depth Torah Lishmah, the Supreme Court, professional development and ethics, women’s issues, social justice, immigration and Israel’s 70th anniversary.

“I think that the Reform movement has led the way for decades in the question of making sure that there is an entryway to Jewish life and to relevant Jewish practice for folks,” Axler said, “whether we’re talking about interfaith families or work that’s been done with the LGBTQ community. Within our congregations, people who not that long ago felt shut out of Jewish life or shunned or as though they didn’t have a place in the community, are authentically part of our Reform Jewish fabric.”

Rabbi Craig Axler, Temple Isaiah (File photo)

In the six years that Axler has been at Temple Isaiah, membership has grown from 400 to 500 family units — from young families to empty-nesters.

“It’s actually been a little bit surprising to me,” he said.

Axler, who is also president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis, said he feels the current trend in the Reform movement is “to bring clarity of vision to the principles that we stand for as a movement.”

“Inclusion is certainly one of them; authentic and creative practice is in there as well,” he said. “And having social justice being a part of the core of the movement, but also recognizing that it can’t be social justice alone. Meaningful Jewish involvement and practice and tradition as well as innovative celebration — these are the things that will make, and do make, the Reform synagogue a meaningful place for many Jews in the American community and in the worldwide community.”

Rabbi Linda Joseph (File photo)

Throughout its history, Reform Judaism has certainly seen some swings of the pendulum, from the early 1800s in Seesen, Germany, and its roots as a movement that broke away from traditional Judaism to universalize by holding services in the vernacular and adding music and choirs. But the pendulum swung back following the Holocaust with a turn toward tradition and an added emphasis on Hebrew and Israel.

“Reform Judaism is, in essence, a form of Judaism that changes so that each generation finds meaning and relevancy in their Jewish practice, belief and expression,” said Rabbi Linda Joseph of Har Sinai. “Twenty-five years ago, when I first embarked on my rabbinate, the emphasis of our movement was on spirituality. It was felt there needed to be more ‘Torah’ than the social action emphasis of past generations to engage the next generation of Jews.” But she said she is again seeing renewed emphases on social action and tikkun olam.

David Carp, Roberta Orman and Del. Dana Stein at Har Sinai’s 175th at Har Sinai’s 175th anniversary celebration. (Barry R. Berman photo)

Welcoming Communities

Longtime and newer members of Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom have found their way to the Reform congregations for different reasons.

For 45 years, David Carp and his wife, Marilyn, have been Har Sinai members. Carp grew up at Beth Tfiloh but his family was not very active. His wife grew up at Har Sinai, where her mother was secretary for then Rabbi Abraham Shusterman, who led the congregation for 30 years.

Carp said he and his family were fairly engaged with Har Sinai as their children attended religious school and had bar mitzvahs there, but were otherwise not so active. But 10 years ago, he and Marilyn went to Israel.

“That was a life-changing event for me,” he said. “Upon returning from Israel, I was asked to co-chair the ARZA Committee (Association of Reform Zionists of America) and things really took off with my involvement at our Har Sinai Congregation.”

Carp said his deep connections with other members have kept him and Marilyn engaged in synagogue life.

“The main reason to stay and be involved at Har Sinai has been the great friends that we have made there,” he said. “Whenever there has been a life-cycle event in our family (both good and bad), our Har Sinai friends have always been there for us. And that has been very special and has made me really treasure my friendships and memories over the last 10 years.”

As far the merger goes, Carp said he hopes a combined congregation would allow for more “programs and activities to increase awareness of the fun and exciting things that we can do together to attract new members and retain current members.”

“I also hope that we can promote our new congregation as a center of engagement for families of all different backgrounds, faiths and desires,” he added. “I think that to thrive, the Reform movement (like many religious organizations) needs to study the desires of the community and meet those needs and priorities.”

Jessica Krasnick (Provided)

Jessica Krasnick found Oheb Shalom when attending Tot Shabbats at a number of area Reform congregations. She, her husband and daughter joined the temple about a year and a half ago.

Krasnick, who is 34 and expecting her second child, grew up in the Reform movement and decided to join Oheb Shalom “to make sure that we had a Jewish community for our daughter to grow up in.”

“We felt the most warm, open-hearted feeling at Oheb, especially from the rabbis,” she said. “I think Reform Judaism does a really good job of kind of meeting people where they are and making it accessible in the current times, whether it’s musically or with the programming or the kind of services that they offer. Oheb has done a good job of reaching out online, on social media. That’s actually where I saw the Tot Shabbats first advertised. They reached out and that got me engaged.”

She said recent combined events between Oheb Shalom and Har Sinai are a “great way to get the ball rolling on the merger.”

“I think that it would be a really good thing if it does increase the amount of engagement that goes on if they do merge and brings in anybody and everybody,” she said. “Especially for us, we would love to see more young families, even though we already have a great community of young families at Oheb. It’s always great to expand and make it even larger.”

Berman and Wender at Temple Oheb Shalom (David Stuck photo)

That kind of spirit is what Wender and Berman are finding as the subcommittees get to work. Town hall meetings have been held at each congregation to answer questions and dispel rumors. More are planned as the subcommittees move forward with their research.

“At each, Oheb and Har Sinai, there were town meetings that went very well. But there is a lot of emotion out there,” Wender said. “I really think we just need to do things together. We need to have small groups, we need to get people together so they don’t feel like there’s that much change.”

Berman agreed. “I think when you’re dealing from a place of trust and you’re dealing openly and honestly, I think no matter what happens in the future, we are working together. Everybody on this committee on both sides has high hopes for it to work out. We are very optimistic.”

singram@midatlanticmedia.com

 

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