This story was updated on Sept. 15, 2017.
In a letter emailed to congregants yesterday, Sept. 13, Har Sinai Congregation’s Rabbi Linda Joseph and President Anne L. Berman announced that the Owings Mills synagogue has created a “strategic partnership” with Temple Oheb Shalom in Pikesville.
Referencing “the unique identities and contributions” of both historic Reform congregations, the letter said the partnership’s objective is “to build a stronger Reform community in Baltimore.”
Although the announcement did not provide specifics about what the partnership will entail, the letter told members that “in the months to come, teams from each congregation [will] join together diligently to work through the important details in order to bring this exciting possibility of merging our two congregations to fruition.”
Jmore spoke today, Sept. 14, with Berman and Mina Wender, president of Oheb Shalom, who are acting as spokeswomen for the two congregations about the potential merger.
Wender said the decision to move ahead with discussions came about for a couple of reasons.
“On our side, we felt we could do much more with a larger congregation, especially when it came to programs,” she said. At present, Oheb Shalom has 625 families and Har Sinai has 320 families.
In addition, Wender said, “The contracts of most of our clergy will be up at approximately the same time. It’s the perfect time to consider what to do, how many [clergy members] we will need. … ”
“For many years, we’ve met over the summer for Shabbat services and study sessions purely as a way to let our clergy take vacations,” said Berman. “We all got to know each other’s clergy. What if we took this several steps further? What if we did more programs together?”
Both presidents stressed that decisions on how to proceed with a possible merger would be carefully considered. “We’re dating,” Berman joked. “But we really like each other. We may decide to go steady. But we’re not getting married yet.”
Said Wender: “The only way we can make the decision of whether to go down the path together is through due diligence.”
Wender and Berman said they cannot predict how long it will take for the decision to be finalized. “We are not being hasty,” said Berman.
“We don’t want to set goals that will cause us not to do this right,” said Wender. “We really want to find out how to become a 21st century Reform congregation. We want to learn how to meet people where they are. A Baby Boomer like me is in a different place than a young family or a single millennial.”
For help with the deliberation process, Wender and Berman said their congregations have consulted with the Union for Reform Judaism’s Rabbi David Fine, director of consulting and transition management, and Mark Pelavin, chief program officer.
So far, they said that no decisions have been made about the fates of the buildings of the two synagogues.
Founded in 1842, Har Sinai is the oldest continuously Reform congregation in the United States. It is located at 2905 Walnut Ave. Its first spiritual leader was Rabbi David Einhorn, who in 1861 was forced to flee Baltimore because of his outspokenly abolitionist views.
Har Sinai moved to its Owings Mills location in 2002.
Rabbi Linda Joseph came to Har Sinai in 2016.
Oheb Shalom, which was founded in 1853, is located at 7310 Park Heights Ave. and its 57-year-old home was designed by Walter Gropius, founder of the renowned Bauhaus School of architecture. From 1893-1960, Oheb Shalom was located at the historic Eutaw Place Temple in the Bolton Hill area.
The temple’s first senior spiritual leader was Rabbi Benjamin Szold, father of the Zionist leader and Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold.
Rabbi Steven M. Fink has served as Oheb Shalom’s spiritual leader since 1999. On its website, the synagogue states, “Temple Oheb Shalom prides itself on its history and tradition while concurrently being among the most innovative congregations in the country.”
In 2016, the area’s other major Reform synagogue, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, absorbed Temple Emanuel, another Reform synagogue which was founded in 1955.
“You have two historic Reform synagogues,” Berman said of Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom. “Both have legacies, both have been champions of civil rights in Baltimore. We’re proud of both congregations, and we’ll have many reasons to celebrate them both.”
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