NEW YORK — Reacting to an increasingly perilous economic outlook, the leader of the Reform movement proposed that some of the movement’s synagogues could consider merging with Conservative congregations as a cost-saving measure.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, in a speech to the Union for Reform Judaism’s board of trustees, said that while he generally views American Jewish pluralism as a source of strength, communities in the current crisis may no longer be able to afford multiple synagogues.
“In a small town it may be that a struggling Reform and a struggling Conservative synagogue will have to overcome their differences and join in cooperative programming, and even formal mergers,” Yoffie said Dec. 12 in Tampa, Fla. “And in a large city, with two or five or 10 Reform congregations, it may be that the time has come to share social services, buildings and staff.”
Barriers have been falling for some time between denominations, particularly the more liberal ones, with leaders of the various movements demonstrating greater willingness to participate in joint initiatives and share resources. This summer, the leading Reform and Conservative seminaries announced that they would be establishing a program, funded by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, to jointly train clergy in various areas of so-called practical rabbinics: communal trends, management and outreach.
But formal mergers between Conservative and Reform synagogues, movements that retain notable distinctions in theological outlook and liturgy, remain rare. Some eight American synagogues are members of both movements.
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, who heads the Conservative movement’s congregational arm, the United Synagogue, said that while he strongly favors sharing resources, only in rare cases have formal mergers been successful.
“Our experience has been that it’s fraught with peril,” Epstein told JTA. “What you end up doing is making the ideology and the values insignificant, and for many people in congregations they are significant.”
While Epstein declined to express a firm opinion on Yoffie’s suggestion, he said the issue is mostly a practical one: Can a merger advance without requiring congregants to compromise their religious values? Even within the same movement, he said, synagogue mergers often raise sensitive issues regarding the new congregation’s character.
Jerry Somers, the Reform board’s honorary chairman, said Yoffie’s suggestion was well received.
“I think difficult times call for new and innovative ways to accomplish common goals,” Somers said. “And Rabbi Yoffie’s suggestion and urging that these things be considered I think was very well received and demonstrated that certainly the movements can work more cooperatively and even together on certain types of initiatives.”