A proposed merger between Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills and Pikesville’s Temple Oheb Shalom took a major step forward as a joint task force of the two historic Reform synagogues recommended combining their resources and institutions.
In a “Town Hall Fact Sheet” issued on April 28, the task force — which has met over the past several months — identified areas of shared objectives “to build a vibrant, robust, new Reform community in Baltimore. … The [task force] is prepared to recommend the joining of our two historic Congregations and the creation of a joint new home. We are excited to begin larger conversations with our congregants and share our recommendations.”
The 14-member task force recommended a merger that would produce a single congregation of approximately 750 households. The combined congregation would be headquartered at Oheb Shalom’s current location at 7310 Park Heights Ave. (The statement did not address the fate of Har Sinai’s property at 2905 Walnut Ave.)
“In the coming months, a joint working group would be formed to ensure the creation of a collective home that honors and blends both congregations’ long histories in order to preserve sacred, cherished objects and recognition elements,” the statement read.
The task force recommended the creation of a 25-member transitional board of trustees to serve for the first two years of the new congregation. Fifteen trustees would be chosen from Oheb Shalom and 10 from Har Sinai. The board would be led by a seven-member executive committee consisting of co-presidents, co- executive vice presidents and co-treasurers from each congregation, and a secretary from Oheb Shalom.
After the first two years, new board members would be elected without requiring specified previous affiliations with either Har Sinai or Oheb Shalom.
The merged congregation would temporarily use the name Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom until a new name could be agreed upon — with help from the Union of Reform Judaism — by congregational vote by the High Holiday season of 2020.
Regarding a spiritual leader for the combined congregation, the statement said, “Our visioning would provide input for our new congregation to enter the rabbinic search process this fall, to select a Rabbi who would arrive in the summer of 2020. Until that time, clergy from each of our Congregations would work together to serve the combined congregation.”
(Rabbi Linda Joseph is the outgoing spiritual leader of Har Sinai, while Rabbi Marc L. Disick serves as the interim senior rabbi of Oheb Shalom.)
If both congregations support the the task force’s recommendations, Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom’s existing boards will vote to sign a letter of intent to merge as early as May 14. After the letter of intent is signed, a financial and legal due diligence process will begin immediately and a transitional board would be created.
Once financial and legal due diligence is completed, congregational votes to formally approve the merger will be scheduled for no later than Sept. 22.
Co-chairs of the task force included Lisa Budlow and David Sachs of Oheb Shalom, and Mark Dopkin and Barbara Schlaff of Har Sinai. Oheb Shalom president Vicki Spira and Har Sinai president Kenneth Bell also served on the task force.
Last March, Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom renewed merger talks in the aftermath of allegations surfacing against Oheb Shalom’s longtime spiritual leader, Rabbi Steven M. Fink. The accusations were “of an improper incident of a sexual nature that may have occurred a number of years ago involving Rabbi Fink and a then teenager, who was a minor at the time,” according to Oheb Shalom’s leadership.
Rabbi Fink, who came to Oheb Shalom in 1999, was initially suspended with pay and terminated by the temple last October. He has vowed to take legal action in the matter.
Har Sinai and Oheb Shalom first announced merger discussions in September of 2017. But last May, Har Sinai announced a “30-day pause” after the allegations arose. A couple of weeks later, Har Sinai’s leadership announced that the temple temporarily postponed the merger exploration talks to focus on “managing our own needs at this time.”
Founded in 1842, Har Sinai is the oldest continuously Reform congregation in the United States. The temple moved to its current Owings Mills location from Upper Park Heights in 2002.
Oheb Shalom was founded in 1853. From 1893-1960, Oheb Shalom was located at the historic Eutaw Place Temple in Bolton Hill before moving to its current Pikesville location. Oheb Shalom’s building was designed by German architect Walter Gropius, founder of the renowned Bauhaus School of art and design.
In 2016, the area’s other major Reform synagogue, Baltimore Hebrew Congregation — which is located across the street from Oheb Shalom — absorbed Temple Emanuel, another Reform synagogue, which was founded in 1955.