Partnerships between congregations are often about fixing problems.
But an upcoming collaboration between Temple Sinai and Rodef Shalom is about seizing an opportunity, rabbis from the two Reform congregations said.
This Saturday, at 8 p.m., the congregations will come together at Temple Sinai in Squirrel Hill for a selichot service and program in advance of the High Holidays.
Rabbis from each congregation say the joint service is not an attempt to pool limited means, address a crisis or fix a shortcoming. It’s just two congregations sharing resources — rabbinic, lay leadership and synagogue space — for mutual benefit.
“I’d like to celebrate the exciting nature of the sharing without creating inappropriate expectations,” said Rabbi James Gibson of Temple Sinai.
The service highlights the unique history and geography of Jewish life in Pittsburgh.
When Temple Sinai began in the 1940s as an offshoot of Rodef Shalom, the Reform movement generally didn’t include the selichot service in its religious calendar.
While many traditions exist, selichot is most popularly recited the Saturday night before Rosh Hashana. The penitential prayers mark a shift in the preparation for the High Holidays, from the more casual introspection of the month Elul to the more intense preparations of body, spirit and household in the days leading up to the High Holidays.
Although selichot has been a part of the Reform movement for years now, Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom said his congregation’s service has not been particularly well attended in the past. Creating a special event is a way to highlight the special prayers.
“It offers an opportunity to spiritually prepare for the High Holy Day season,” Bisno said. “It allows us to sort of ‘redd up,’ to be mindful and thoughtful about the season we’re about to enter.”
Saturday’s event includes a havdala ceremony, a selichot service and a dessert reception, as well as a discussion with Bisno and Gibson delving into the idea of “Ayeka,” the question God asked a hiding Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “Where are you?”
“It’s not simply a global perspective talk. It will be personal teshuva,” Gibson said.
The two rabbis said the selichot event is not particularly historic for the congregations, which regularly see cross-pollination among members.
Bisno described families and circles of friends where some members attend one synagogue and some members attend the other synagogue in harmony and with mutual respect. Gibson mentioned activities promoted jointly by auxiliaries like brotherhoods, sisterhoods and youth groups.
The two congregations offer a different experience with the Reform context, Gibson said.
“Every synagogue has its own culture, its own history, its own way of looking at itself in the community, and we respect that,” Gibson said. “We also know we’re part of a larger movement.”
Pittsburgh has seen much collaboration among congregations recently.
Hillel Academy, the Orthodox day school, will hold its classes this year at Congregation Beth Shalom, the largest Conservative congregation in Pittsburgh. Congregations Tree of Life and Or L’Simcha have consolidated their religious schools, share space at the Tree of Life building and have floated the idea of merging the two congregations. In the eastern suburbs, where Temple David and Parkway Jewish Center have also merged their religious schools, the East Suburbs Jewish Connection hosted a summer barbeque where seven congregations and six community groups east of Pittsburgh came together to highlight each other.
These efforts are happening for many reasons: the changing needs of institutions, the changing nature of congregations, the growth of suburban Jewish life in Pittsburgh, and population decline in the western Pennsylvania Jewish community.
The upcoming selichot service doesn’t fit within the national trend of synagogues and congregations coming together to address mutual shortcomings, according to Bisno.
“Most of the collaboration that we hear about are in response to a need,” he said. “This is different in that neither of our congregations are in that position. And yet, I think it speaks to a sense that we can do more when we work together. There is an openness and willingness to work together today. … This is an example of two congregations collaborating to realize greater returns: sums that are greater than our returns.”
The concept alone is unique to Pittsburgh, where the uncommon density of congregations within the city allows for two independent Reform synagogues within a mile.
“It’s part of what makes Pittsburgh very special,” Bisno said.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)