This week, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, the leader of the Union for Reform Judaism, suggested that due to the post-Madoff economic crisis, some communities "may no longer be able to afford multiple synagogues." The solution is to merge Reform and Conservative shuls in order to survive. (See "Yoffie Sees Shul Mergers" and "To save cash, Yoffie raises possibility of merging Reform, Conservative shuls" ).
New York Jewish Week notes "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."
All of this struck a nerve because I grew up in a merged shul -- Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs -- which served the needs all the Jews in a 60-mile radius.
When you are a minority in a small town, internal distinctions are less significant. Reform. Conservative. Orthodox. Unaffliated. Secular. Survivors. Veterans. Yiddish-speakers. Poets. Socialists. Conservatives. Those who doubt God and those who do not. We were all Jews. Where I grew up, we all went to one shul.
Consider the history of Temple Isaiah:
In 1956 the completed Center's physical facilities consisted of a modern sanctuary, library, offices, patio, meeting and classrooms. Temple Isaiah had won recognition and praise from architects and laymen as being among the finest facilities of its kind in the country. The unifying experiences of the war years and the leaderships' vision of unity instilled a philosophy of total service which strengthened and grew.The rabbi, Dr. Joseph Hurwitz, was a JTS graduate. There was a daily Orthodox minyan.
Its service to the Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox communities evoked much interest from coast to coast. This unique Temple/Center was now the focal point of all organized Jewish communal life in the Palm Springs area.
We alternated the Friday night services. Every other Friday, we would get out the Reform prayer books. The rabbi would conduct a Reform service. The next week, we got out the Conservative siddurim. The rabbi would conduct a Conservative service. They had what looked like Christmas cookies at the Oneg. (My grandmother's family came from Vienna. My grandfather came from Zvenigorodka, near Kiev, but she had the best recipes.)
One shul. One rabbi. Great cookies.
When someone died, the rabbi came to your house. A wedding? The rabbi performed the service. Out after curfew? The police took you to the rabbi’s house . . . but that's another story.
We were a minority in a small town where everyone knew one another. One shul. One rabbi. It was just the way things were done. Today, Temple Isaiah is a Conservative synagogue and a member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. It is one of several temples in the Desert area. As for me, I attend the minyan at Adat Ari El, but in my heart, I call myself pre-denominational. Sometimes, I just don't understand the committees, the distinctions. Elsewhere, the subject of shul mergers has re-emerged. This column in the Jerusalem Post and this story about a town in Iowa, which reminded me of growing up in Palm Springs:
Two High Holy Days services were held this fall. Rather than proving divisive, former congregational president Rona Chafetz Train says it showed how welcoming the new congregation can be. “The beautiful thing is, people went back and forth between the services,” she relates. “People who had never been to a Conservative service could see one, and the same for the Reform. Everybody was going around with a smile on their face, hugging each other.”Shul mergers -- coming soon to a congregation near you.
Anita Brenner is an attorney in Pasadena with a bad attitude and a good record