Orthodox Synagogue Votes To Shift Its Affiliation

By Steven I. Weiss

Published June 25, 2004, issue of June 25, 2004.
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One of America’s last family-seating Orthodox-affiliated synagogues with mixed-gender seating voted this month to join the Conservative movement, leaving only one family-seating Orthodox synagogue in the entire country.

Agudas Achim, a synagogue in Columbus, Ohio, voted to rescind its Orthodox affiliation at a meeting this month. The vote followed a long decision-making process in which the synagogue’s leadership maintained regular contact with the Orthodox Union and the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism. The vote was first reported in Columbus’s New Standard. While Agudas Achim has yet to actually send notification to the O.U. of its intention to disaffiliate from its network of nearly 1,000 synagogues, Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, executive director of the organization, said he expects such notification shortly.

Synagogues with family seating, also known as “traditional” synagogues, were houses of worship in which Orthodox belief and practice joined a mixed-seating environment and other elements viewed as more modern, and were common in the earlier part of last century. Since then, as separate-seating has become a hallmark of American Orthodoxy and the ideological and practical gaps between Orthodox and Conservative Judaism have grown, most such synagogues have either joined the Conservative movement or developed separate-seating services.

The vote leaves only one other synagogue with mixed-gender seating under the umbrella of the Orthodox Union. Congregation Beis Medrash Hagadol-Beth Joseph, or BMH-BJ, is an 800-family synagogue in the Denver area that features a family-seating minyan on Shabbat mornings and holidays, according to its rabbi, Daniel Cohen, who said that the synagogue also features a separate-seating minyan that is attended on a regular basis by a minority of congregants who are generally younger than the family-seating membership. The other two prominent Orthodox synagogue organizations — the National Council of Young Israel and Agudath Israel of America — have no family-seating synagogues in their networks.

In May, Weinreb and the USCJ’s executive vice president, Rabbi Jerome Epstein, both of whom gave presentations to synagogue members about their respective movements and their requirements, visited Agudas Achim. Both rabbis said that they were not present for each other’s presentations, seeking to avoid the impression that they were debating the relative merits of their movements.

Epstein said he is frequently called upon to give presentations to congregations who “have grown up unaffiliated” and are looking to join a movement, usually the Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist. But, Epstein added, this latest case is a rarity both because congregation members were considering Orthodoxy and because the congregation in question actually changed its affiliation. He said that since 1986, between five and eight congregations have moved from Orthodox affiliations to the USCJ, while three to five have joined from either the Reform or Reconstructionist movements.

Weinreb said that Agudas Achim was the first congregation with which he has had such a discussion, though he has only been in his current position for a two-and-a-half years. When Weinreb entered his position, he said, there were three O.U. synagogues that did not have a mechitza, or separation between men’s and women’s sections: BMH-BJ, Agudas Achim and Beth Tfiloh, a synagogue in Baltimore that built a mechitza last year.

The status change was prompted by a review conducted by the O.U. Until several years ago, Agudas Achim’s status had been subject to less scrutiny because it maintained a small, separate-seating minyan. But when this minyan left Agudas Achim to launch an independent, Orthodox synagogue, the Main Street Synagogue, Agudas Achim’s status within the O.U. came under renewed consideration. Weinreb said that the synagogue was on the agenda for an upcoming O.U. board meeting in July.

The last remaining family-seating synagogue in the O.U., BMH-BJ, has become the subject of intense focus on the part of the O.U., Yeshiva University and the Rabbinical Council of America. Weinreb said that the three groups worked together to find a rabbi who would bring the congregation closer to contemporary Orthodox practice, including a greater emphasis on the mechitzah. They chose Cohen, who had been known for his outreach work in the previous seven years as rabbi of the Young Israel congregation in West Hartford, Conn.

Cohen said that the synagogue is “moving towards a crossroads where they need to identify where they want to go.”

“Much of the younger generation is in tune with a vision of aspirations toward orthodoxy… but the older generation is very resistant to change,” said Cohen, who added that he is “on a mission to try to educate the constituency towards greater observance and greater alignment with the Orthodox tradition.”

According to Brandeis University Professor Jonathan Sarna, mixed seating in traditional synagogues began in the late 19th century, and grew to the point where, in the 1950s, 90% of Hebrew Theological Seminary graduates and 50% of Yeshiva University graduates are estimated to have served mixed-seating congregations. This trend was reversed in recent decades toward the near-disappearance today of the traditional, mixed-seating synagogue.

“Congregations have been forced to choose: If they want to remain Orthodox they need to bring back the mechitza, if not they should affiliate with Conservative movement,” wrote Sarna, in an e-mail to the Forward. “This has not proved easy in cities like Denver and Chicago, where huge mixed-seating Orthodox synagogues stood for decades, but pressure from the outside (rabbinic candidates) and from younger members (who believe that Orthodoxy and separate seating walk hand in hand) has generally brought about the change. In a country where it has not always been easy to figure out what kind of synagogue one is in, separate seating is today an easily visible marker of Orthodoxy.”

While BMH-BJ remains the only Orthodox-affiliated synagogue with family seating, only one unaffiliated synagogue has a rabbi who is a member of the RCA. Rabbi Daniel Bouskila oversees a family-seating synagogue in Los Angeles called Tiphereth Israel. Bouskila said that for 11 years he has been an RCA member as well as the rabbi at the synagogue, where he says they practice “modern traditionalism.”

Rabbi Basil Herring, executive vice president of the RCA, told the Forward that he was unfamiliar with Bouskila and Tiphereth Israel, but that his organization “do[es] not permit rabbis to function in the RCA… if their synagogues have mixed seating,” except on an interim basis.

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