Yoffie and mergers

Yoffie and mergers

One thing you can always say about Rabbi Eric Yoffie. The man’s got guts.
After all, it takes a certain amount of fortitude to raise the spectre of Reform and Conservative congregations merging. Notice we said Reform and Conservative; not Reform and Reform or Conservative and Conservative.
What Yoffie proposed last week in an address to the Union for Reform Judaism’s board of trustees in Tampa, Fla., is a new twist to the intermarriage issue — wedding congregations of different philosophies.
Talk about shotgun weddings!
Yet despite the hurdles, Yoffie is on to something. Anyone who’s in the know about synagogue administration in Pittsburgh knows that the congregations here are hurting. They’re probably hurting around the country, as they deal with declining membership and ever rising costs of operation.
Where we part company with Yoffie is his suggestion that this has something to do with the recent financial crisis. It does not.
“Let me be clear: I have always believed that the passionate pluralism of North American synagogue life is a source of strength,” Yoffie said to the trustees, “but now we are in a crisis situation, and it may be that we can no longer afford what we once took for granted.”
Well, Pittsburgh synagogues here have been struggling for quite some time. Two of them, Tree of Life and Or L’Simcha, have already merged their religious schools and will share the Tree of Life building come January.
And in the eastern suburbs, Parkway Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, has closed its religious school and now sends its kids to Temple David, a Reform congregation.
We began erasing the denominational lines long before Bernie Madoff, the subprime mortgage mess and the $700 billion bank/carmaker bailout. Those developments may have intensified the issue, but they didn’t create it.
So if American Jews are looking askance at Yoffie’s suggestion — and you can bet many are — you need only look at the Pittsburgh models to see what the chief Reform rabbi in America says is not so far fetched. We’re already experimenting with the idea here.
That’s not to say there wouldn’t be serious obstacles to cross-movement mergers of congregations; there are structural and ritual differences between the two movements. They must be respected, but they shouldn’t be impediments.
In some hypothetical city of the future, if there’s a choice between having eight ailing congregations or four merged, but healthy ones, we hope the leaders of that city will remember that what makes us all Jews is stronger than what divides us into movements.