Long Beach has had a significant and stable Jewish population for decades, so it might seem unusual for a synagogue to make major changes in the way it serves its membership and the community. In recent months, however, individuals and families in the area have been reevaluating their choices as a new option for affiliation has surfaced.
This past April, two Conservative synagogues, Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach and Temple Beth Zion-Sinai in Lakewood, were making plans to merge, an idea that had been discussed off and on for many years.
According to Beth Shalom President Bruce Greenberg, Beth Zion-Sinai requested that the two synagogues move forward and put the merger to a vote. While the membership at Beth Shalom voted almost unanimously for the merger, Beth Zion-Sinai did not reach the required two-thirds vote.
The failed merger ended amicably, according to Stan Yellin, president of Temple Beth Zion-Sinai, but it also took his congregation in a new and innovative direction: The membership decided to become a progressive, or nondenominational, synagogue.
Along with the transition came a name change; now called Congregation Shir Chadash, it hired a new rabbi, Howard Laibson, several months ago. Ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1981, Laibson had been at the helm of Temple Israel of Long Beach for 17 years. His move to Shir Chadash means leading the congregation in its pursuit of change.
"We are about to embark upon a new, challenging and exciting enterprise," Laibson said in a message to his new congregation. "We will maintain and build anew the deep commitments to Jewish tradition and to the Jewish people that are hallmarks of Temple Beth Zion-Sinai. We're going to do so in a most unusual manner, by embracing Jewish diversity and by eschewing denominational labels. The hope is that many new families will become members of our synagogue, and they are likely to bring all sorts of traditions and practices with them. We want all Jews to feel at home here. So ours will be neither a Reform nor a Conservative congregation."
Nationally, this kind of shift toward nondenominational Jewish institutions is on the rise.
"We are seeing a nationwide movement to do away with denominations," said Deborah Goldfarb, executive director of the Jewish Federation in Long Beach. Goldfarb describes this development as a response to new nondenominational ways some Jews are seeking to connect to Judaism -- embracing the notion of "I'm just Jewish."
"It is a positive move for synagogues to reexamine their places in the community and how they appeal to their constituents," Goldfarb said.
Beth Shalom President Bruce Greenberg says that although his congregation initially was disappointed that the merger did not go through, they are confident about future growth.
"Our temple continues as a full member of the Conservative movement," Greenberg said. "We are making great progress and looking forward now to being the only Conservative shul and with the only conservative Torah School in the greater Long Beach area."
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat of Beth Shalom is optimistic as well.
"We are continuing to move forward in a positive direction," Grinblat said. "We remain a Conservative, egalitarian synagogue and are very pleased with our growth in membership. In just this past year we have welcomed at least 25 new member families."
Following the departure of Laibson, Temple Israel of Long Beach also is undergoing change. They are in the midst of a search for a new head rabbi, and a number of members followed Laibson to the new nondenominational Shir Chadash. However, even with the migration, Temple Israel's membership remains relatively unchanged, with approximately 500 member families. Sharon Amster Brown, director of education at Temple Israel's Torah Center said student enrollment also has stayed consistent.
All this movement may be a reflection of the fluidity of a dynamic, changing Jewish population in the area and the differing ways in which families wish to observe. Jessie Butler, a Long Beach resident for 44 years and past president of the Jewish Community Center, has observed the shifts.
"I've seen changes in the demographic of our senior population, and I've watched the numbers of young people and teenagers go up and down numerous times over the years," Butler said. "Currently we have many young families joining the JCC and a waiting list at our nursery schools. I think that's a positive sign."