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In LA, a high-profile merger prompts questions over the future of the synagogue

The coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down or slowed down so many aspects of Jewish life, may have sped up another: synagogue mergers.

In one of the biggest consolidations of recent years, University Synagogue, a Reform congregation with declining membership in the West Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood, struck a deal this month with Wilshire Boulevard Temple, a historic congregation of 2,000 families and two campuses that has been seeking added space for its early childhood and elementary schools.

The merger comes about as synagogues everywhere have been forced to move religious services, class lessons, adult programming and camping activities to Zoom and other online platforms. Left with virtual membership, congregants are asking why they have to pay their usual full amount of annual dues.

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That has left many synagogues large and small exploring mergers and other strategies to stay in operation.

Mergers have typically been a last-resort strategy for Jewish institutions seeking to maximize assets and cut costs. And not all are the same. Sometimes both of the merged locations stay open, as in the Wilshire-University arrangement. Sometimes one site closes as Temple Or Elohim in Jericho, N.Y. last year absorbed the Community Reform Temple of Westbury.

Two Lake Tahoe area congregations, North Tahoe Hebrew Congregation and Temple Bat Yam, began sharing a rabbi several years ago. In San Francisco, Congregation Beth Israel Judea has shared its space with Or Shalom Jewish Community since 2014. In Los Angeles, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and a nearby congregation, Temple Isaiah, co-run a synagogue-based village for aging adults under what they call ChaiVillageLA.

Among other congregations exploring change this year, Union Temple and Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn entered into merger talks, and so did Temple Sha’arey Shalom of Springfield Township, N.J. and Congregation Ohr Shalom.

The Wilshire-University deal reflects a confluence of contemporary issues affecting many Jewish institutions: the virus, declining membership and a growing number of Jews who identify more as spiritual than religious and do not have a need for synagogue membership.

Rabbi Rick Jabobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, reported earlier this year that more than 200 of 850 Reform congregations in North America sought the organization’s help in getting federal emergency aid. And just this month, the Metropolitan New York District of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism held its fourth conference on collaborations and mergers.

Rick Jacobs Image by Robert A. Cumins/JFNA

“I feel deeply for my colleagues everywhere serving congregations,” said John Rosove, who retired last year as senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Hollywood after 40 years. “This is a tough period. Most have stepped up and are doing what they have to do to address the needs of their people.”

Under terms of the Wilshire-University merger, Wilshire is assuming University’s debt in exchange for prime real estate that includes added classroom space in a celebrity-rich neighborhood with lots of young families eager for their children to get a Jewish education at a convenient location.

In a cost-benefit analysis, Wilshire’s leadership concluded that the ability to bring a Jewish education to a larger number of children outweighed taking on debt of about $1 million.

“How can we allow a synagogue to fail in the heart of one of the most important Jewish neighborhoods in Los Angeles?” said Steve Leder, Wilshire’s senior rabbi. “How could we look the other way when that opportunity presents itself? I am just not built that way. We embrace opportunities to bring more people in, even when it involves real sacrifice.”

Mergers often take time to complete. University had been seeking a partner for several years before Wilshire stepped up in the spring to begin talks. A deal was finalized this month.

Amy Asin, vice president of Strengthening Congregations at the UJR, said the coronavirus can accelerate merger talks that were already underway.

“Most mergers take years to happen, years and years,” she said. “I think congregations that have been in conversations for years, this might speed it up.”

Synagogues that will survive, Rosove said, are those where congregants have a strong motivation to support their community.

“The greatest challenge right now is economic,” he said. “I know at my own congregation, there was a massive fundraising effort when COVID hit and they really delivered, those who could afford it, because there is a strong commitment to the congregation.”

Rabbi Steve Leder

Rabbi Steve Leder Image by Courtesy:

Wilshire’s Leder said he believes early childhood centers are the key everywhere to sustaining synagogue life, shaping Jews at a young age. Driving the merger with University, he said, was gaining classroom space at the University campus, which is less than two miles from Wilshire’s at-capacity westside campus. University also has a sanctuary for weddings and b’nei mitzvahs; Wilshire’s west side campus has a large meeting hall with a mobile ark for Torahs.

Cami Gordon, a member of University Synagogue for 16 years and a former board member, said the merger allows University to retain its building, its staff and a familial identity.

The challenge for University going forward, she added, will be holding onto its identity after fully integrating with Wilshire, a process expected to take about three years. She expressed confidence that the two communities will complement each other.

“We reached out to others and the one that responded and fit with us and also allowed us to stay in our building was Wilshire Boulevard Temple,” she said. “The friends I have who are members of Wilshire Boulevard are similar to me and my friends and my family. I think most of our congregants will find like-minded people they can connect to. Philosophically, our synagogues are very much aligned.”

Asin envisioned an arrangement in which University members would become a distinct group within Wilshire.

“I can imagine a scenario where the University Synagogue campus is a distinct personality within the Wilshire Boulevard system,” she said even though Wilshire members will be free to participate in all University-based programs.

University Synagogue

University Synagogue

For Wilshire, one of the largest congregations in the West, the merger is the latest transaction that has drastically increased its footprint in Los Angeles. The current sanctuary has operated in its mid-city location since 1929 when much of the financing came from the heads of the major Hollywood studios. In 1998, a west side campus opened, giving families who live far from the main sanctuary a more convenient location for services, schools and other programs.

In 2016, Wilshire opened a family social services center along the block just north of the main sanctuary to provide local residents access to a food bank, eye care, dental care and legal services. In April 2021, a newly constructed social hall, designed by Rem Koolhaus, is scheduled to open in a massive structure alongside of the main sanctuary.

In some respects, Leder’s desire to take on the financial debt of another building, which initially will be called the Wilshire Boulevard Temple University Campus, runs counter to the way Judaism has been forced by the coronavirus to relocate online.

But if coming together in a physical space feels like a distant memory as the pandemic grinds on, Leder said he is confident people will return to their congregations’ home spaces when it is safe to do so.

“I am not convinced the era of brick-and-mortar synagogues is waning, especially when dealing with families with young children,” he said. “We know online education has serious limitations, particularly for young children. We know parents [of young children] are the lifeblood of synagogues. As long as we continue to run a warm and haimishe early childhood center and programs for young families, we will need more space, not less.”

Rosove agreed, saying the pandemic has only reinforced the importance of coming together to worship and experience community.

“This is really an anomaly in Jewish history,” he said, speaking of the pandemic. “People want their sacred spaces. People identify with a place. I don’t see that need being addressed without the building.”

How people access Judaism has changed and will continue to change, Rosove added, insisting that a pandemic is not enough to kill off a faith-based, communal tradition that has survived thousands of years.

“It’s a new world,” he said. “Every synagogue, based on where it is, who the rabbis are and who the congregants are, creates community and cultures. Hopefully those are sustainable and meet the needs of their members.”

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