Objections raised by two established Reform congregations to a start-up alternative shul in Irvine has forced the new group to temporarily
postpone seeking admission to the Reform movement's national organization, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC). Nearby synagogues, Newport Beach's Temple Bat Yahm and Irvine's Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot, opposed UAHC membership by tiny Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, said Rabbi Linda E. Bertenthal, associate director of the UAHC's Southwest council, which reviews new congregation applications.
Kol HaNeshamah, a self-described Reform congregation, consists of 32 families that hold services monthly and religious school weekly in low-cost, Irvine community centers. Dues are $650 a family. A nondenominational seminary, the Academy for Jewish Religion, ordained its part-time spiritual leader, Rabbi H. Rafael Goldstein, who is also the chaplain of San Diego's Jewish Healing Center. About half the families are refugees from defunct Congregation Or Ami, which collapsed due to unable to meet their expenses.
"We're not really a threat to anybody," said Pat Goldman, who with her husband, Howard, are co-founding presidents. "They don't realize how alternative we are," she said, adding that Kol HaNeshamah has attracted members who previously had no synagogue affiliation. "We have very low dues, no building, no cantor. We offer much less."
Perhaps, Goldman surmised, Bat Yahm, with 700 families, and Shir Ha-Ma'alot, at 350 families, fear a repetition of the explosive growth experienced by another newcomer established in the late 1980s: Irvine's University Synagogue today has 570 families. "We're not going to grow; we're tiny," she said. "I used to think we could grow to 45."
Many synagogue budgets are shrinking as more congregants in financial straits seek dues relief, fail to fulfill pledges and drop membership, Bertenthal said. "They're anxious for their own interests," she said of Bat Yahm and Shir Ha-Ma'alot.
Though UAHC congregations lack veto power over the admission of new members, their opinions are solicited and territorial invasions that undermine a congregation's viability are reason for rejection, said Peter B. Schaktman, UAHC's new-congregation department director. About 30 new congregations were admitted nationally since 2001.
"The level of displeasure by surrounding congregations was surprising," he said of Kol HaNeshamah.
At Bertenthal's urging, the congregation agreed to withdraw its UAHC quest to attempt to collegially quell concerns. Goldman said its leaders intend to establish relationships with the other synagogues, including attending the movement's convention next month in Costa Mesa. She expects to reactivate the congregation's membership application in time for their scheduled review in June.
More than one-third of UAHC's more than 900 congregations are small congregations of 150 members or less that seek membership to gain access to the movement's myriad resources, including political clout, leadership training, placement services and education curriculum. Dues are based on a formula that includes expenses and membership.
Kol HaNeshamah's expected UAHC dues would be $500, Goldman said. By comparison, Bat Yahm's and Shir Ha-Ma'alot's dues were $59,233 and $19,289, respectively, says the 1999-2000 annual report, the most recent available. Or Ami, which also raised objections, was delinquent in paying, the report shows.
"We can pay our dues," said Goldman, a previous Or Ami member.Â "We don't have many expenses. We don't ever want a building. That's what killed us.
"People don't come to us because we're cheap. We give them something they don't get," she said, including a spiritual and intellectual component, and less restrictive rules about participation in rituals. Â