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A Synagogue to Share

Conservative, Reform Congregations Merging


A Jewish congregation in Anaheim Hills has found a new home in an unlikely place: somebody else's synagogue.

The conservative congregation of Adat Ari is moving into Beth Tikvah, a reform temple in Fullerton, an arrangement that raises a lot of logistical questions. While many Jewish congregations have started in Orange County by sharing space with churches, that is actually easier because services are at different times. How will two Jewish congregations manage when services must be at the same hour? And how will a conservative congregation, which strictly follows Jewish dietary laws, use the kitchen of a reform temple?

"Anything that is bold in concept has the potential to make one nervous," said Joe Amsterdam, student rabbi and spiritual leader of Adat Ari. "And it's certainly bold in concept to have two Jewish denominations under one roof."

On Sunday, members of Adat Ari carried their Torah to its new home, a custom in memory of Jews who wandered the desert for 40 years with the Ark of the Covenant.

Though the reform Beth Tikvah congregation has never mixed meat and milk in its kitchen or allowed shellfish or pork, leaders of Adat Ari hired a kosher caterer for Sunday's event to avoid any worries.

Yet to be worked out are theological differences, such as who is allowed to read from the Torah and the validity of interfaith marriages, which most reform congregations recognize but conservatives do not.

"It is most unusual for a merger to be between two different denominations," said Alice Greenfield, acting coordinator for the Encino-based Pacific Southwest Region of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "More common are mergers of conservative temples, and even those can be fraught with great difficulty."

"Both sides have to be very sensitive to where the people are coming from and what their needs are," she said. "It's not only fraught with the same delicacies that any merger is, but adds difficulties with people who come from different backgrounds and expect different things from their family synagogue experience."

Greenfield said that in her 12 years with the Pacific region, she knows of only three mergers between reform and conservative temples: at Kol Ami in Salt Lake City, Temple Isaiah in Palm Springs and Ami Shalom in West Covina.

"We all need to know that we're part of the same family," Greenfield said. "Sometimes we put blinders on, and we shouldn't."

The challenge for congregation leaders is to make sure the two Jewish traditions peacefully coexist with neither being watered down.

"We really haven't lost any members," said Lila Pesner, president of Beth Tikvah, "although we have had some of our people say they don't want to become too conservative."

She and others say there are obvious benefits to the arrangement.

There has already been an uptick in registration for Beth Tikvah's religious school, said Miriam Van Raalte, director of education. Last year, about 120 students were registered; this fall the school is planning for 150.

"Children here will have the benefit of learning about the various branches of Judaism firsthand," Van Raalte said. "I imagine, after a while, it will become quite blended and comfortable. But at first, it is scary. Even the teachers will have to reeducate themselves."

There are financial benefits, too, because both congregations have been concerned about shrinking attendance. Merger talks began last summer.

Adat Ari, a 13-year-old temple that leased space in Anaheim Hills, had dropped to 50 families from 90. And Temple Beth Tikvah, a 36-year-old congregation, was down to 275 families from 350 in the late 1990s as many joined fast-growing congregations in booming south Orange County.

Only 20 Adat Ari families so far have committed to the sharing arrangement. Some others have migrated to Congregation B'nai Israel, a conservative temple in Tustin, Rabbi Amsterdam said. He too will be leaving this summer to finish his training in New York when his contract expires July 1.

After that, the new congregation, "Temple Beth Tikvah in association with Adat Ari," will share a rabbi, Ned Soltz of Beth Tikvah; and keep one set of books, one membership roster, one school, one office. But two services--one reform, one conservative--will be held every Friday and Saturday as temple leaders continue to work out details and differences before declaring the merger official.

Meanwhile, congregation members express optimism that their unusual arrangement will lead to a thriving, inclusive Jewish organization that will be a vibrant cultural and spiritual haven.

"We want to create a place that will attract as many Jews as possible," said Beth Dubowe-Lawrence, a member of Adat Ari. "We are going to observe both sets of ritual practices and are going to be inclusive, not exclusive."

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