SPRINGFIELD, NJ – In a recent letter to congregants, the co-presidents of Temple Sha’arey Shalom announced that the 60-plus-year-old congregation would be considering a possible merger with Congregation Ohr Shalom, also known as the JCC of Summit.
The move comes after the Board of Trustees of Sha’arey Shalom heard the report of the Investigating New Entities Committee (INE) at the synagogue. The report detailed the results of discussions with multiple potential partnering synagogues.
In the letter, the board explained that a number of expensive building repairs, coupled with a decline in membership and holdover costs from the past few years have left the temple in a depleted financial position.
The key factor is the decline in membership, which has left the congregation with a smaller number of members, and as a result, fixed monthly expenses exceed the current amount of cash flow.
According to the Pew Research Center, decline in membership can be attributed to a lack of religious affiliation, which is a common problem across all denominations. Americans who do not identify with a religious group are increasing in number.
What that means is that when older members move away or die, newer members from Gen X and the Millennial generation are not coming in to replace them in equal numbers.
As a result of the financial crunch, reserves are low, and the board has said that they do not have sufficient funds from donations and fundraising to continue operation past June 30, 2020.
Due to this situation, the board and INE reached out to synagogues in the area and selected Ohr Shalom. Both congregations still need to vote on the merger before it can take place.
Ellen Lieberman, co-president of Temple Sha’arey Shalom said the potential merger between the two synagogues is the best choice, as the temples align across a variety of key factors.
“Leaders from The JCC and Temple Sha’arey Shalom are excited about the opportunity to create this new, innovative liberal synagogue in our area,” Lieberman said. “Both of our congregations are known for warmth, social action, a family feeling and fun. The new temple will take the best from both the JCC and TSS and add additional innovations that will come from the synergy between the two.”
That feeling is echoed by Phil Kantor, the President of Congregation Ohr Shalom.
“We’re two congregations that have a lot in common,” Kantor said. “I know that Sha’arey Shalom has been looking for a partner, and we’ve had some conversations over the last few months and discovering, as I said, that we do have a lot in common with regard to our philosophy and our approach and the make-up of our membership.”
Kantor continued, saying, “Through our conversations we discovered that we made good partners, and we were going to look to see if we couldn’t come up with an agreement to combine our two congregations.”
And as for Rabbi Renee Edelman, the Rabbi at Sha’arey Shalom, the moment is bittersweet. But she is hopeful that the similarities between the congregations will make for an easy mesh.
“I am tremendously sad that Temple Sha’arey Shalom is closing her doors after over 60 years of serving the Reform Jewish community of Springfield and local towns,” Edelman said. “When a door closes a new one opens, and we have the wonderful opportunity to create a new wonderful Jewish home with the Summit JCC.”
Edelman added, “I have met with the clergy several times and really like them. We share the same energy and the same joy in Judaism.”
Edelman also said that she hopes the merger will create a stronger synagogue for both parties.
“I know that creating a new entity between the two shuls will have a powerful effect,” Edelman said. “We will become the synagogue where people want to worship, want to study, want to socialize and be a part of.”
[Editor's Note: Matthew Kass is a member of Temple Sha'arey Shalom, one of the congregations mentioned in the story.]