Rabbi Stephen C. Listfield has taken a one-year paid sabbatical from Tree of Life Congregation, in a move that effectively ends his tenure at the liberal Conservative assembly.
Listfield had two years remaining on his contract, but agreed to give one year back in return for the sabbatical.
“I have time to do things now on my own that I enjoy,” Listfield said. “There were two years in the contract, but we came to this accommodation.”
In his absence, Rabbi Chuck Diamond of Or L’Simcha, which for the past year has shared facilities at Tree of Life, will lead combined Shabbat services. Tree of Life Rabbi Emeritus Alvin K. Berkun will lead High Holiday services this year, while Diamond will conduct separate services for Or L’Simcha.
All these moves represent steps that could eventually conclude with the consolidation of the two congregations. Their religious schools merged last year and hold classes at Tree of Life.
“We’re going to move to explore the merger of the two congregations in earnest at this point,” Tree of Life President Alan B. Gordon said. “[We will] try to work through a process where both congregations can look very seriously at this.”
He expects Tree of Life to hold a congregational meeting following the High Holidays to discuss the process.
If Tree of Life and Or L’Simcha were to merge, the new congregation would have more than 500 family units and 78 children in its religious school.
Given their similarities, a consolidation of the two congregations makes sense, according to Or L’Simcha President Lou Weiss.
“We literally use the same prayer book,” Weiss said. “For me, it’s a no-brainer.’’
He added, “We are cognizant of the shrinking Jewish community in Pittsburgh, and Rabbi Chuck has achieved in a few short years a dynamism and excitement in services that Tree of Life wants to share; we’re complemented by that, and honored by that, and flattered by that.”
Gordon also acknowledged that a consolidation is the right thing to do to maintain the vitality of one of the oldest congregations in the Conservative movement.
“Our congregation, which has been around since 1864, is an important part of our community,” he said. “By moving forward the way we are to combine with Or L’Simcha we’re really putting Tree of Life in a position where it can thrive in the future and can continue to be an important part of the community.”
Diamond acknowledged there are differences between the congregations, but that they can, and should, be accommodated.
“I think there some differences. Or L’Simcha tends to be a little more traditional in some ways,” he said, “but at the same time Tree of Life has been a little more formal in its services where Or L’Simcha is a little more laid back. Tree of Life uses music at times; Or L’Simcha hasn’t. So there are some differences, but we will be looking for some common ground. Also we’re allowing different types of experiences under the same roof.”
One unresolved issue is Diamond’s status in the Conservative movement. He resigned from the Rabbinical Assembly when he founded Or L’Simcha rather than accept a suspension for establishing congregation so close to two existing Conservative affiliates.
Gordon said there is a process for readmission to the R.A., which he has discussed with Diamond. For his part, Diamond said he’s “not adverse” to reapplying, but he didn’t indicate he would do so soon.
“I think this is something for the future,” he said. “I really don’t see that as a big issue at the moment.”
Leaders of both congregations point to their combined religious school as the strongest indication that a merged congregation can work.
“It’s really an opportunity to move forward,” Gordon said. “You see what happened last year when we merged the schools; it was really terrific. Everyone was just thrilled with how well the school did. It doubled the number of kids we have in the school; it made the school very relevant, vibrant — a school that attracts families. It’s one of the major missions of a congregation — to educate in the Jewish religion. It’s just critical we are able to do that now in such a terrific way.”
The Torah Lishma Community religious school, which opened in September 2008, will remain under the direction of Diamond and Religious School Director Shelly Schapiro.
Weiss said both congregations would use the coming year to get better used to the new relationship.
Using a dating analogy, he said, “When you meet someone and you’re dating a couple months and you see that a great relationship is coming, you kind of know what is coming, but you still want to get to know each other a little better.
“We’ve been going steady for a while now,” he added, “and it looks good.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)