The two old congregations voted unanimously Thursday, June 24, in separate meetings to become Tree of Life/Or L’Simcha, a Conservative congregation of 530 family units and 212 young people up to grade 12.
“It came together smoothly, as people came and saw it,” outgoing Tree of Life President Alan Gordon said of the two-year-long process that led to merger.
The new congregation belongs to the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella organization for Conservative congregations, but Rabbi Chuck Diamond, its spiritual leader, has not yet rejoined the Rabbinical Assembly, which represents the Conservative rabbinate.
“It’s under consideration,” Diamond said.
Diamond resigned from the R.A. when he started Or L’Simcha, rather than cease and desist from the project, as the R.A. wanted.
The new congregation, which will continue to meet in the Tree of Life synagogue, will be administered for the next two years by co-presidents — Paula Garret from Tree of Life, Suzanne Schreiber from Or L’Simcha — as well as a board, an executive committee consisting of a secretary, treasurer and six vice presidents. The bylaws for the new congregation have already been accepted.
While the congregation has merged, some issues remain, such as how to marry the different traditions of both congregations. For instance, Tree of Life played music at some of its Shabbat services where Or L’Simcha did not. Diamond said the use of music is still evolving.
“Our plan is to meet and study a lot of these issues, the halacha and see where it is we will go,” Diamond said.
But mostly the merger, which began more than a year ago when the two congregations consolidated their religious schools and began the space sharing arrangement, has worked seamlessly.
“We discovered we had more in common than differences,” Garret said.
Reflecting on the process, at least from Or L’Simcha’s standpoint, Schreiber said, the idea to merge the religious schools seems to compel the merger as well.
“We felt that to be as fruitful as we possibly could be, we needed to be in the same building, sharing space as well.” Schreiber said.
The new congregation has no affect on the arrangement with Dor Hadash, the Reconstructionist congregation, which began sharing space and operational expenses at Tree of Life in April.
Gordon said he hoped the merger would serve as a model for the rest of Jewish Pittsburgh, demonstrating that individual groups and congregations can continue to fulfill their missions even if as they come together in new relationships.
“It can be done, and it can be done effectively,” he said, “and in a way that benefits the community.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)