A fixture in Jewish Pittsburgh for more than 150 years, Rodef Shalom Congregation has a storied past.
But, according to its clerical and lay leadership, it must make serious changes to secure its future.
At a Jan. 19 town meeting, Rodef Shalom’s senior rabbi, Aaron Bisno, and its president, Don Simon, laid out the challenges facing the largest congregation in western Pennsylvania, and their strategies for addressing them.
Bisno said that Rodef Shalom must consider changes to nearly every aspect of its operation. This must be done, he said, by pooling resources with neighboring congregations for youth education, religious services and administrative functions.
“We can’t go it alone. We have an obligation to pursue [collaboration],” Bisno said.
Bisno, who traveled across the country last winter while on sabbatical, visited many congregations and learned firsthand that Rodef Shalom’s problems aren’t unique.
His sabbatical also exposed him to many creative approaches to deal with these vexing challenges.
“We need to re-examine everything we do,” he said. “We have a unique opportunity to do something creative and courageous.”
Recently, Rodef Shalom has reached out to Temple Sinai and Congregation Beth Shalom in Squirrel Hill to consider partnerships in education. Bisno hopes to present a proposal for such initiatives to the board of trustees by March, at the latest.
These initiatives must not undermine the congregation’s identity and turn it into “a one-stop behemoth,” he cautioned. “We need to figure out what we need to accomplish.”
Members of the congregation used the forum to suggest ways to retain young congregants, including merging with Temple Sinai and to moving Sunday school to Saturdays.
Alan Ackerman advocated the merger idea, calling it a benefit to both congregations. Ackerman noted that operating two Reform temples only a mile apart is wasteful and “can’t go on forever.”
Bisno, who opposes such a merger, warned that one congregation risks submerging its identity to the other in such cases.
“Something will be lost,” he said.
However, he acknowledged “an enormous amount of duplication in religious education” between the two congregations.
Simon also opposes merging with Temple Sinai. “We’re not a business. … It’s very difficult to merge two different congregations,” he said. “We should view [Rodef Shalom] as a holy community.”
Dan Freedman of Murrysville expressed concern that Rodef Shalom pays too much attention to social action.
“There’s a great emphasis on social action,” Freedman said. “It waters down the brand. It’s something that members should seek elsewhere.”
He also suggested that Rodef Shalom move Sunday school to Saturdays as a way of improving attendance at Shabbat services.
Bisno thought Freedman had a valid point about overemphasizing politics and noted that a congregation shouldn’t stray from its core mission in teaching Torah and Jewish values. He also said that he would consider Freedman’s Saturday school suggestion.
“I was very gratified and encouraged by the amount of enthusiasm,” Bisno said after the meeting. “There is a clear recognition of the challenges. … We have the wherewithal to address them.”
(Ron Kaplan can be reached at email@example.com.)