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After 150 Years, Two Reform Congregations Come Back Together In Baltimore

In 1842, members of one of the first synagogues in Maryland broke away after a rebuke from their rabbi, an Orthodox hardliner who was deeply troubled by secularism among American Jews. He decried their use of Masonic rituals at Jewish funerals — in effect, idol worship. So they formed their own synagogue, Har Sinai Congregation.

Just over a decade later, another group of congregants from the original synagogue, seeking to find a middle ground between the radical Har Sinai and the old European style, broke away as well. They called theirs Temple Oheb Shalom, “Love of Peace.”

Now, Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom, two of the country’s oldest Reform communities, are merging, hoping to reconcile over a century and a half of distinct traditions and history. Yet despite the intervening years, members say that the two synagogues still share the same DNA, liturgy and tunes. And ultimately, with their membership logs in decline, coming back together is the only way forward.

“Buildings have costs, clergy have costs, clerical staff have costs,” said Anne Levin Berman, a recent former president of Har Sinai. “It makes sense to combine forces.”

The merger has been in the works for over a year and a half. Har Sinai pulled out of the talks in the summer of 2018, while the Reform movement investigated an allegation that Oheb Shalom’s longtime rabbi, Steven Fink, had once put his hand on the thigh of a teenager asking for a recommendation letter, as well as other allegations of inappropriate behavior referred to in the Reform rabbinical association’s report on the investigation. Fink denied any misconduct, but under pressure from movement leaders after Fink was officially suspended from its rabbinic association, the synagogue voted to fire him. The two synagogues started talking again afterwards.

In September, the synagogues officially announced the merger. This year’s High Holidays were the last time the communities held separate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

Though incubated in Germany in the middle of the 19th century, the Reform movement found its home in America’s melting pot, and now accounts for just over a third of American Jews, according to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 study of the population. Whereas Orthodox and Conservative Judaism base their religious observance on the canon of Jewish law, Reform Judaism favors inclusive values and individual choices over rules.

Today, Reform communities face declining synagogue membership. In 2000, about half of Jews who identified as Reform were members of a synagogue. In 2013, Pew found that that proportion had dropped to about a third. To combat eroding membership and economic uncertainty, synagogues have turned to mergers — even across denominations — as a means to preserve their communities while sharing facilities and payroll costs.

This is the second merger of two Reform synagogues in Baltimore in three years: In 2016 the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the synagogue that begat both Oheb Shalom and Har Sinai, absorbed Temple Emanuel, founded in 1955.

Yet rarely, if ever, have two synagogues with so much history between them merged, according to Steven Windmueller, a professor of Jewish communal service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

Until this year, Har Sinai was the oldest continuously operating Reform congregation in the country, according to Marvin Pinkert, the executive director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, who related the story about the synagogues’ origins.

“There is a segment of Har Sinai that is very proud that they are part of this historic, classically Reform congregation,” Pinkert said.

Oheb Shalom was where Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah, the Jewish women’s Zionist group, was raised. Her father, Benjamin Szold, a famous rabbi of his time, led the congregation for several decades.

Both synagogues long ago moved out of Baltimore’s main city and into the suburbs. In the 1960s, Oheb Shalom built its current building, designed by a modernist master to look like a cross between jet turbines and the stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments were etched. In 2002, Har Sinai completed work on a secluded campus in a far northwestern suburb.

Despite the weight of their history, both congregations are in a good position to merge, said Berman, the recent Har Sinai president. A number of people who grew up in one synagogue are now members at the other, and their services are very similar. While there was some skepticism at the beginning of the merger process, synagogue leaders have been meeting with congregants over the past year to convince everyone that the merger is in both communities’ best interests, Berman said.

“Anybody with an ounce of common sense and a thought for the future sees that it is a good thing,” Berman said.

Now, the task has turned to integrating the congregations into a single space, in Temple Oheb Shalom’s building in Park Heights, in an area known locally as “Synagogue Row.” A “Collective Home” committee is deciding how to display artifacts and Judaica from the two congregations in there, according to Vicki Spira, the former president of Oheb Shalom and co-president of the merged congregation. (Har Sinai has been trying to sell its own building for over a year, though it has not announced a buyer yet.)

About 600 families will make up the congregation’s membership, Spira said, making it slightly smaller than the average Reform congregation, according to the most recently available data, a 2010 study of Reform and Conservative synagogues.

They haven’t decided on an official name yet, but informally refer to the synagogue as “the new congregation.”

“We’re hoping that a meaningful name will come to light in a more organic way,” Spira said. “It may be Hebrew, it may be English, but something that represents who we are going forward.”

Though the scandal over the accusations against the rabbi and his firing scarred Oheb Shalom somewhat — they agreed to a settlement with Fink for an undisclosed amount this spring — Spira said the congregation has largely healed from the episode.

“We did lose people, but the majority of people stayed and are committed to the institution, and understand that it’s not about any one person,” she said. “And in that way, I think we’re stronger, even stronger than we were before the crisis.”

Synagogues can face significant challenges when merging, according to Windmueller, ranging from differences in how they run their services, to how they manage their finances, to how political they want their rabbi to be. Representatives from the Union for Reform Judaism, the movement’s umbrella organization, have consulted with Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom during the merger period.

The new congregation is trying to smooth over the different elements of the merger as best they can by temporarily making the leadership positions “co”: Both Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom have each contributed a co-interim rabbi, a co-president, a co-vice president and a co-treasurer. The search committee for a permanent rabbi is made up of equal parts Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom members, and is led by one co-chair from each synagogue. The “co” arrangement will last until the summer of 2021, according to Ken Bell, the other co-president and the last president of Har Sinai.

Some decisions are on hold for now. Bell said that no one on the staff of either former synagogue has lost their job due to the merger, and that fundraising has been paused.

The new synagogue will begin holding joint services permanently this month, Spira said. Other logistical changes have already been made: On a recent Friday, a receptionist answered a phone call to Oheb Shalom with a greeting for “Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation.” Though they have registered the domain name, the new website hasn’t been built yet.

“When something is necessary, you do what’s necessary, and you don’t look back over your shoulder and say, ‘If only,” Berman said.

Clarification, 11/4/19, 11:30 a.m. — This article has been updated to clarify that the Reform movement’s rabbinical association investigated Rabbi Steven Fink for multiple allegations of inappropriate behavior.

Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman





    Hybrid: Online and at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan

    Oct 2, 2022

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