Recently there have been reports of Conservative and Reform synagogues merging in order to deal with the difficult economic situation in America.
In towns where the Jewish population cannot sustain both a conservative and reform congregation these mergers are necessary. Some of the arrangements have been very creative and credit is due to those who negotiated these mergers. It is heartening to see cross denominational cooperation and people thinking outside the box to sustain Jewish institutional life in times of crises.
There is another side of the story. While for years people have been talking about the closing of the gap between Reform and Conservative Judaism, with Reform Judaism becoming more traditionally minded and Conservative Judaism taking more liberal positions, these mergers represent a leaving behind of ideology. (see link to merger article below)
Now, before readers get all upset… I know that in some of these cases it was either merge or close…I am, however, interested in analyzing an underlying reality that allowed these mergers to happen.
My point is that synagogues and movements with strong ideologies would make for very difficult merger partners. Synagogues with strongly held beliefs, nuanced opinions and unique character are not easily folded into other synagogues.
It is ideology that allows us to occupy our religious ground and with pride and to teach, preach and adopt positions on important issues.
One Jewish group in America that personifies pride in their ideology is Chabad. I cannot imagine a Chabad House ever merging with another group or a Chabad school having a non-Chabad rabbi or Morah teach Judaic studies. For them, there is too much at stake their ideology
While the mergers do speak to a climate of cooperation, they also highlight a lack of passion related to ideology.
There is another angle here as well.
While I am not aware of Modern Orthodox Synagogues merging with Chareidi synagogues, it is often the case that a Modern Orthodox shul will hire a rabbi who is ideologically Chareidi. I actually heard a search committee members of an orthodox shul say that they want their Rabbi to be more religious than they are so they want a Chareidi. (Don’t even get me started about the implication that Chareidim are more religious than Modern Orthodox Jew!!).
It is true that Modern Orthodox Shuls are not monolithic and that even within the Modern Orthodox camp there are varying positions on key issues. Having said that, Modern Orthodox shuls should be able to articulate positions that are important to them and that would make a merger or even hiring a Chareidi Rabbi, impossible.
Modern Orthodox synagogues need to carve out positions on women’s involvement in ritual, Zionism, the importance of serious general education, desire for cross denominational cooperation, interfaith issues, conversion and the welcoming of the non-observant. These positions along with the central teaching that Halacha governs all synagogue matters, should create a synagogue persona that is ideologically strong.
Doing this is very important as people are attracted to groups that stand for something. Creating a strong ideological identity will help grow our ranks and give us the self confidence to proudly advocate a Modern Orthodox lifestyle.
On the one hand we should celebrate the ability of the American Jewish community to work together and make difficult decisions in order to survive. On the other hand, I wonder that if we were more passionate about ideology we would not come to these crossroads to begin with.