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Jewish Journal

Trying to Make a Merger

by Wendy J. Madnick

April 6, 2000 | 8:00 pm

For three decades, Temple Solael has sat on Valley Circle Boulevard, perched above the westernmost crest of Woodland Hills. Over the years the Reform synagogue gently competed with Temple Aliyah, a Conservative congregation, just up the road. Then, in the mid-1990s, Temple Aliyah membership began to skyrocket, and the subsequent establishment of a second Conservative shul, Shomrei Torah, also built on Valley Circle, placed the Reform congregation in a precarious position.

Despite its well-regarded preschool and the arrival of Rabbi Ron Herstik a few years ago, Temple Solael has found its membership dwindling. Temple officials won't say how low the numbers have fallen, but it is serious enough that the synagogue must either merge, find new funding or close.

Enter Temple Judea of Tarzana. Reluctant to see a sibling Reform synagogue pass into history, officials at Judea are struggling to find a way to merge the two congregations.

The move is being made not solely out of charitable motives; according to Judea's spiritual leader, Rabbi Don Goor, about 36 percent of his temple's growing membership now resides in Calabasas, Agoura Hills, Woodland Hills and West Hills, making Solael an excellent choice for a satellite site. The temple already maintains an off-site Hebrew school at Indian Hills High School in Agoura, which is enrolled almost to capacity.

"Our real problem is our growth. We're wearing a size 6 shoe and we're a size 9 foot," Goor said. "In the last three years we've gained 240 member families, with a good portion of that from the West Valley. Our long-range planning before Solael came to us included looking at expanding our staff to better meet congregants' needs and addressing the westward movement of our congregation. So when Solael came to us, it was almost a dream come true."

Members of both temples took a vote on the proposed merger March 21, with the resolution passing unopposed at Solael. At Judea, more than half the voting membership supported the merger, but supporters lacked the required two-thirds majority to pass the resolution.

Goor and other temple leaders have not given up hope that the merger may yet pass and have formed a committee to see if it is possible to mitigate the opposition's concerns.

"Most of those opposed (to the merger) felt there wasn't enough information yet, so the process is continuing as we attempt to answer their questions more clearly," Goor said, adding that opponents hoped to avoid the lingering financial problems that had haunted other synagogue mergers in recent years.

Goor said the committee at Judea hoped to be able to make a decision by early May.

"Obviously both sides have serious reasons to consider this move," he said. "Solael had come to the end of its road, and I think that was a very brave thing to admit. It's not easy to ask for help, and they did it with such integrity. The congregation has such a devotion to Jewish life that our merger talks began with the question of how to continue Jewish life at that site.

"No one wants to see a congregation go under," Goor said.

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