Mergers. Are They Good For The Jews? – Rabbi Barry Gelman

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.

http://www.thejewishweek.com/viewArticle/c36_a16032/News/New_York.html

5 Responses to Mergers. Are They Good For The Jews? – Rabbi Barry Gelman

  1. Benjamin Fleischer says:

    I think there is a general trend in my generation (I’m 30) to eschew denominational boundaries.

    In my experience, the majority of people who go to Conservative synagogues have gone because they are looking for something with Hebrew, a certain prayer service, and egalitarian. They aren’t necessarily familiar with the positive-historical model of JTS scholarship.

    Similarly, in the Reform movement, most members are unaware that the movement’s philosophy is that people should make educated decisions about observance– not that reform is supposed to have less ritual and more English. The anti-religious wing of Reform is mostly grandparents now.

    And in the Modern Orthodox world, I think there is a sense that Modern Orthodox is ‘more authentic’ and yet still ‘modern’, while it is not Conservative in as much as there’s no mechitza or women davening or women reading Torah or that there’s more a focus on the ritual halakhah than social justice aspects.

    But, that these boundaries are blurring is evidenced by this blog. The reform movement is generally integrating more ritual, the Conservative movement is increasingly pulled away from conventional understandings of Halakah by a laity that is uninterested in process and wants their religion to reflect their weltenschaung (world view). Similarly, MO wants to be modern, by, for example giving women increasing rights, but to do it in ‘an Orthodox way’.

    In other words, as the definitions and populations shift away from the platforms of 50 or more years ago, a merger of denominationally different synagogues with similar religious philosophies is not so surprising.

    I hope this makes sense… as I am generalizing a bit. And may be making some errors in logic which I am open to reconsidering.

    I call myself Post-Halakhic (which I suppose could be called a kind of reconstructionist, but that has other connotations). For me, I think the halakhic process is currently limited by a kind of calcification of the powers of rabbis to reinterpret halakha following, in particular, the publishing of the shulchan arukh.

    I am deeply committed to the Jewish process and feel comfortable in serious and committed Jewish environments, whether Conservative or Orthodox or neither. But I am happiest when in an environment where people take Judaism seriously and find joy in it, which is trans-denominational.

    I’m involved in bringing Limmud to Chicago. Limmud is a trans-denominational Jewish learning experience and conference. We call it a communiversity.

  2. Getting back to Modern Orthodox vs. Charedi, many shuls wouldn’t think of placing themselves in either category. The non-Chabad Orthodox shul in my small city doesn’t label itself, though realistically the congregation is a mixed bag and the rabbi is yeshivish. And in Atlanta (the big city I’m most familiar with) I’m not sure any Orthodox shul other than Chabad and Young Israel formally labels itself either as “Modern” or something else.

    • Barry Gelman says:

      Thanks for your comment. I am not so much interested in the actual labels as I am in reality that many shuls do not have a strong identity and that many members are willing to give up on areas they feel are important.
      I wonder if in your small shul a non-yeshivish rabbi would be accepted.

  3. Benjamin Fleischer says:

    BTW, another Conversion nullified in Israel. Very sad what religion has come to in Israel.

  4. Despite the differences in historical background and official policy statements, there is no practical difference today between Reform and Conservatism. There is nothing in Conservatism that would stop a Reformer from praying in one of their synagogues or attending one of their religious ceremonies. And vice versa. The few differences that remain, such as Conservatives accepting Reform converts and patrilineal descent, will disappear as the JTS’s membership role continues to plummet and they desperately seek to regain relevancy in an apathetic constituency that is looking for obligation-free religion.

    Thus to compare their merger to a possible one between MO and Chareidim is not relevant. In such a case, both groups expressed fealty to God and Torah, it’s only in their approach to secular issues and certain chumros that they differ. Chareidim would have no trouble praying in most MO shuls and certainly MO’s have no problem with Chareidi ones.

    However, one paragraph in particular points out the major problem with MO thinking today:

    > 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.

    Needs to carve out? Along with the central teaching that Halacha governs all synagogue matters? Come on. Halacha governs all matters, personal and public, synagogue, business and home. All the issues mentioned in the paragraph have been dealt with by the major halachic decisors over the past few generations. The purpose of Jewish observance is not to take secular values and somehow make them fit into Orthodoxy but to worship God through the performance of His halacha, no matter what those secular values otherwise tell us.

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