The congregations of Temple Sinai and Temple Emanuel have formally agreed to move forward to pursue the integration of the two synagogues into a new entity. The decision, which comes in the wake of the acknowledged difficult financial and demographic
realities in both synagogues, nonetheless promises a positive and invigorating shift in the dynamics of the Worcester Jewish community.
“I’m very excited about the process,” says Rabbi Matthew Berger of Temple Emanuel. “We’re creating a new and positive vision for Reform Judaism in Worcester, bringing the energy of two congregations to do that while still honoring the history of them both.”
Rabbi Scott Saulson, interim rabbi at Temple Sinai, concurs. “It’s a great opening to do things more creatively, to rethink what Jewish community life can be like in Worcester,” he says. “It speaks well of the maturity of both congregations that they are thinking along these lines.”
The use of the word “integration” is deliberate and precise, avoiding the more negative connotations of “merger,” which implies the subsuming of one congregation by another.
“Temple Emanuel is not taking over Temple Sinai, and Temple Sinai is not taking over Temple Emanuel,” says Ellen Meyers, who, with Carlton Watson, is the co-president of Temple Emanuel. “We are looking to create a new congregation. That’s the point we need to keep putting out there.”
“’Integration’ makes it clear that what will happen is the creation of a new temple, a new 501C3, a new name and a new board,” says Rabbi Berger.
The immediate impetus for change came in the wake of the retirement last June of Rabbi Seth Bernstein, who had served Temple Sinai for twenty-five years. Serious financial discussions just before his departure and during the summer indicated that a drop in full dues-paying members had put the budget “on a slippery slope,” says Sinai president Gary Englander. “We went into the interim thinking that we would do a caretaker year and then hire a full-time rabbi. We looked at the financials and found we didn’t have the money to do that.”
Believing that “perhaps the time had come to think about alternatives,” the Sinai leadership opened a discussion with the co-presidents of Temple Emanuel and Joel
Baker, president of Congregation Beth Israel, at a dinner in late August. Temple Emanuel, which has approached Temple Sinai about the possibilities of a shared community several times in the past, has itself been operating at a budgetary and membership deficit. With a congregation of 370 families that includes a significant percentage of older congregants, the temple leadership has long been concerned about the prospects for the future.
In the aftermath of a positive conversation among the temple presidents, Sinai’s Board of Trustees determined to present three options to their congregation at large:
“We could either stay as we were; pursue the possibility of a ‘condo complex’ [shared campus] with Beth Israel and Temple Emanuel; or take a look at integration between the two reform synagogues,” says Gary Englander.
An initial congregational meeting, held on November 2, presented the alternatives and entertained discussion, followed by more discussion and a vote on December 7. That vote was heavily in favor of the third alternative: integration. Englander subsequently sent Meyers and Carlton Watson an email whose subject line read “Creating a Vibrant Community,” formally letting them know that “it is now our vision to work with Temple Emanuel to investigate and work out details that might result in completely integrating our two communities into one.” In response, the Executive Committee and the Board of Trustees at Emanuel scheduled two congregational meetings for late January and early February, one to present information and the second for a vote. In addition, the co-presidents met with Gary Englander and Sinai’s First Vice President, Bill Weiss, to clarify the details of the discussion on the table.
For the initial meeting, Meyers and Watson put together a comprehensive power point presentation that included information about demographics, membership shifts, and the budget that spelled out the serious situation in which Temple Emanuel, too, found itself. After discussions in which every question and comment was addressed, the vote on February 5 was 138-2 in favor of “grant[ing] permission and authority to the Co-Presidents to establish task groups to work with Temple Sinai to develop a plan for the creation of a new congregational entity.” (A straw vote held the previous week for those who could not attend on February 5 was 27-0 in support of the request.)
With a definitive mandate now in place in both synagogues, the process of exploration will continue through the work of joint task forces focusing on such areas as visioning, finances, worship, operations, governance and location. The presidents and rabbis of the congregations are now formulating the committees and hope to have them in place within a few weeks.
On March 25, Rabbi Scott Saulson will run and direct a conclave of the assembled task forces, introducing the members to each other and helping them begin to build relationships. The following week, Rabbi David Wolfman of the URJ will visit to discuss the process of integration and to make available the Union’s resources.
As the process unfolds, notes Gary Englander, the task forces will keep the congregants of both synagogues apprised of their discussions through regular communiqués. Ultimately, each congregation will meet separately to ratify the final blueprint for full integration. In the meantime, occasional joint services and other activities will continue, building on the successful blended service held in November at Temple Sinai and one scheduled for March 23 at Temple Emanuel. The two congregations already share a youth group, the Worcester Emanuel Sinai Temple Youth (WESTY) and use the newest prayer book of the Reform movement, Mishkan T’filah.
And, even more significant, the Temple Sinai Board has just voted unanimously to be part of the community religious school, set to open this fall, that links Temple Emanuel and Congregation Beth Israel.
For Sinai, “it was a very tough decision” made in the context of the integration to come, says Englander. “There are those who are gored – our principal, the teachers. But there has been a sea change.”
Rabbi Saulson’s role in this interim year has not only been to serve spiritual and pastoral needs but also “to bring the realities of the situation to the wider congregation as soon as I could and get them truly thinking about ways in which to address them.” It has been similar to his professional work in mediation, where the general rule is to “stay involved and apart at the same time.” Though he will not be here to see the plans come to fruition, he is “terribly proud of these people; they’ve accomplished so much in such a short time.” Sinai will appoint a part-time rabbi for the coming year to oversee the transition.
Though difficult decisions and discussions lie ahead in the months to come, the prospect of change is invigorating. “It’s an opportunity to create something new and different that preserves our traditions,” says Ellen Meyers. “That’s the most exciting thing about this.”
Moreover, adds Rabbi Berger, “We are creating one central address for Reform Judaism in Worcester. I think it is necessary for the Jewish community to have a strong and unified Reform voice.”
By Laurie Porter