Mergers and More: What Is Happening to the American Synagogue, and Why? – Jewish Journal

Posted By on November 13, 2020

In a joint statement issued on November 6, the leadership of Wilshire Boulevard Temple (WBT) and University Synagogue announced the latest merger within the American Jewish communal world.

Rabbi Joseph Newmark founded Congregation Bnai Brith (WBT) in 1862. As Los Angeles first synagogue, WBT would emerge under the leadership of Rabbi Edgar Magnin (1915-1984) as one of the citys most influential Jewish institutions. Over WBTs 158 year history, its transformative clergy and high profile lay leadership have positioned the synagogue to be a pioneering engine of change.

The synagogue has spearheaded several extraordinary initiatives, among them operating a camping system since the early 1950s, introducing its Breuer Conference Center, creating an extensive social justice infrastructure through the Karsh Social Service Center, and creating the Audrey Irmas Pavilion, a 55,000 square foot conference facility currently under construction on the center-city property.

In connection with that news release, Wilshire Boulevards Rabbi Steven Leder framed the core focus of this institutional realignment:

Between our two communities which will become one community, we will have the physical space and spiritual wherewithalto create a vibrant center for Jewish life fromthe405 to the ocean. I am particularlykeen on filling the early childhood center and religious school to capacity so that over the coming years we have hundreds more families withyoung children learning to love the Torah and their synagogue.

The formation of University Synagogue in 1943 correlated with the expansion of Los Angeles Jewish community following the Second World War, when returning Jewish military personnel made Southern California their adopted homes. Originally housed near UCLA, University Synagogue moved to its present home at Saltair and Sunset Boulevard in 1955.

University Synagogue leadership offered the following statement regarding the merger last week:

the board of directors unanimously endorsed a proposed merger with Wilshire Boulevard Temple that will allow us to remain in our building, eliminate our debt, make long overdue renovations, and continue to worship and celebrate together as a synagogue family for generations to come.

But the merger of WBT and University Synagogue reveals more broadly the future of the American synagogue. In San Francisco, Bnai Emunah (Conservative) and Beth Israel-Judea (Reform) have been in dialogue for at least a year. Earlier this year, Union Temple and Beth Elohim, both Reform congregations in Brooklyn, announced that they had launched merger conversations. In Baltimore, Conservative synagogues Temple Har Sinai and Congregation Oheb Shalom merged last year. And in Los Angeles, some synagogues are collaborating to maximize resources and share services; Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Temple Isaiah, for example, created Chai VillageLA, the first synagogue-based village in the country.

Synagogue mergers, closures, and collaborations are not merely driven by this pandemic crisis. For quite some time, congregations have been experiencing significant financial challenges and membership losses. Synagogues with limitedfunding streams are most at risk, and synagogues with multiple income streams (from schools, cemeteries, camps, or housing) are more resilient.

These mergers are not isolated incidents; denominational movements have witnessed widespread mergers and noted economic challenges. This summer, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, reported that more than 200 Reform congregations (out of 850 in North America) sought federal emergency assistance. And recently, the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaisms Metropolitan New York district convened a conference on mergers, collaborations, and partnerships because so many synagogues, particularly in Westchester and Long Island, were initiating such discussions.

Denominational movements have witnessed widespread mergers and noted the presence of economic challenges.

Demographic changes, affiliation patterns, and economic realities all speak to this structuraltrend. Religion in America is changing, as we monitor the rise of the Religious Nones and the downsizing and reorganization of institutional life, resulting from these changing generational behaviors. Certainly, this pandemic has accelerated these challenges, but the seeds for institutional change and religious realignment have been in play for decades.

One change we may see is the increased engagement of younger generations with specific Jewish causes. The social patterns of Millennials and Gen Z suggest that structural religion remains outside of their lifestyle choices. Yet, spiritual inquiry, the study of religious ideas, the alignment of religious values with social justice engagement, and the desire to experience particular religious life cycle events are themes central to this emerging generations priorities and behaviors. Selective engagement rather than membership better defines this cohorts orientation.

In fact, alternative models of religious and communal participation have been present for some time. The Jewish Emergent Network, for instance, represents some of these alternative expressions by offering an array of innovative religious, cultural and social action options. IKAR in Los Angeles, Sixth&I in Washington, D.C., and Romemu in New York are three of these emergent models that seek to reach and serve this cohort of Jews.

In innovating new engagement models, Jewish leaders should take solace that their problems are not unique to the Jewish community. According to Marketwatch, a national think tank, 350,000 American religious institutions are scrambling to meet the spiritual and increasingly material needs of their members remotely, they are doing so on a tighter budget than usual. Marketwatch also suggests that religious giving is significantly down.

Some rabbis, however, are optimistic about the challenges facing Jewish and religious institutions. In an article posted in The Forward earlier this summer, some 30 rabbis weighed in on the challenges facing synagogues and our denominational system. Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom suggested that the denominations will likely not disappear, but morph into forms more suited to the needs of the next moment of our communal life. This reflects an age-old pattern of Jewish life the remarkable adaptability, inventiveness, and resourcefulness of Jewish culture, its genius for turning catastrophe into creativity. Our history shows us that the ever-dying people is in fact, an ever-renewing people. And so it will be again.

As we move forward, larger, more financially secure institutions will dominate the Jewish marketplace. We are likely to see the unraveling of specific Jewish institutional models. The lack of an adequate membership base, overwhelming institutional costs, and declining revenues will accelerate this pattern, as we monitor the mergers, closures, and consolidations of organizations. Yet, as Rabbi Feinstein noted, the Jewish story is an adaptive one, where we are likely to see over time the reinvention of the synagogue model.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at HUC-JIR Los Angeles.

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Mergers and More: What Is Happening to the American Synagogue, and Why? - Jewish Journal

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