It has been a very long time since members of the two oldest Reform Jewish temples in Baltimore have been able to worship as well and as fully as they would like.
Membership in the Har Sinai congregation and the Oheb Shalom temple declined for years, and with it their prospects for long-term survival. They considered merging five years ago and then the talks moved forward in spurts. They united legally, then a pandemic hit.
Now, members of the nation’s “newest and oldest Reform congregation,” as its leadership team calls it, are ready to celebrate their union and start a new chapter in Baltimore’s Jewish history. This Friday, the nearly 500 families that make up the Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom congregation will install their first rabbi, internationally renowned scholar Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, in a formal ceremony, followed by a celebratory dinner and family events.
The activities will kick off a month-long festival that will attract some of the biggest names in Reform Judaism worldwide. Sabath says the festivities are intended as a dramatic statement of the spiritual and cultural heights to which the congregation aspires.
In the shorter term, those who spent months ironing out the details of the merger, largely as the coronavirus pandemic raged, seem pleased just to see their efforts about to pay off.
“It seems symbolic that we are experiencing this change in weather from winter to spring, and the restrictions around COVID will hopefully continue to ease, and it all creates such an upbeat and open feeling,” says Abby Hoffman , a longtime Har Sinai. member now vice-president of the new congregation. “It’s time to come together physically and at all levels and move forward.”
Originating in 19th-century Germany, Reform Judaism is a 4,000-year-old progressive denomination of the Jewish faith, a branch whose believers place less emphasis on the ritual aspects of the religion and more on what they regard as its ethical imperatives.
Har Sinai and Temple Oheb Shalom helped make Reform Judaism part of the American landscape. It was in Baltimore in 1842 that a group of German immigrants, frustrated with some of the practices of their Orthodox Jewish congregation, founded Har Sinai (“Mount Sinai”), the first congregation in the United States designed around prayer rites. reformed. Immigrants from Hungary and Czechoslovakia founded Oheb Shalom (“Lovers of Peace”) 11 years later.
The two quickly earned a name for social activism. Har Sinai’s first rabbi, David Einhorn, infuriated so many people with his anti-slavery views that he was forced to flee Baltimore, according to the New Synagogue website. Henrietta Szold, the daughter of one of the first rabbis of Oheb Shalom, founded Hadassah, one of the largest Jewish service organizations in the world.
Over the decades, both congregations moved from their original homes to sites in northwest Baltimore. They developed close ties when leaders marched during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, and they co-sponsored a series of social events and services that lasted into the century.
However, neither was immune to the decline in interest in formal religion that has plagued American religious traditions over the past half-century. Membership in Har Sinai has grown from around 800 families in the late 1970s to around 325 five years ago. Oheb Shalom has grown from around 1,000 families to 625 over roughly the same period.
Former Oheb Shalom president Mina Wender told the Baltimore Sun that her temple was operating “on a shoestring budget” in 2017 — the year congregation leaders began talking seriously about joining their stories. Those who worked on the merger say that although the two sides shared a range of values and traditions, forging a union was a challenge.
“Imagine a wedding involving a lot of humans with years of history, personalities and traditions,” says Katie Applefeld, a former Har Sinai member on the new congregation’s board of directors. “Mergers don’t always work. It’s hard, hard work.
Congregational leaders had been negotiating for months when allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced in 2018 against Oheb Shalom spiritual leader Steven M. Fink, who condemned them as false, according to Sun coverage. The temple fired Fink, but not before Har Sinai leaders pulled out of merger talks. The Sun reported that Fink was not charged with a crime. Fink and Oheb Shalom eventually reached a separation agreement. Merger talks resumed later the same year.
“We’ve long believed that we’ll be better positioned to thrive in today’s landscape if we come together, but that didn’t mean it would be easy,” Applefeld says.
In 2019, the congregations established a joint task force to address cultural and liturgical differences, explore common ground, and develop a vision for the future.
Members of varying ages, professions and compliance levels spent three months[ing] everything from basic bylaws to finances, what traditions we would observe, what building we would use, and what kind of clergy and staff setup we wanted to have,” says Mandee Heinl, a life member of Oheb Shalom who served on the panel. .
“We were having dinner, and we were sitting there and talking, shouting, clapping, doing whatever it took to negotiate,” Heinl says. “Everyone is committed to making it work.”
Among the decisions: The new congregation made the Oheb Shalom building its home, less because of its architectural significance (it was designed in part by Bauhaus pioneer Walter Gropius) than because of its more central location; Har Sinai comes first in the new name; Torah scrolls from both congregations are used, and photos of each congregation’s confirmation classes from 1930 have been hung side by side.
The parties signed a consolidation agreement marking the legal merger. Two months later, Har Sinai devotees collected artifacts from their long-standing temple in Owings Mills and took them on a nearly 8-mile trek to their new home in Fallstaff, in the north-west of Baltimore. They were greeted by members of Oheb Shalom, and the group hammered traditional Jewish road signs, or mezuzas, from ancient Har Sinai to the gates of the “new” temple as the shofars sounded.
“Was it sad to get out of the old Walnut building?” Sure,” Hoffman says. “But as you walked along the road, you became excited about where you were going. If you want to become a philosopher, the Jewish people have walked through history, taking their stories with them. It was a monumental experience.
One change that did not elicit mixed emotions was the hiring of Sabath, a rabbi who temple leaders say has the kind of charisma, talent and enthusiasm that can inspire long-term success. . A specialist in modern Jewish ethics and theology, Sabath received her doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, was vice-president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and taught on the Israeli and American campuses of the Hebrew Union. Middle School.
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She also adopted a goal that congregational president Dr. David Buchalter says the research team shared with each candidate: that the new leader would not just build on the past, but inspire a unique future. Sabath’s goals include building community through services and events, inspiring intellectual curiosity, promoting deeper learning about Judaism and Israel, and ensuring that the reach of he interest of the temple includes local, regional, and global concerns.
The “installation festival” will include concerts, family services, the installation of cantor Alexandra S. Fox and even a blessing for pets. It will also feature appearances from two prominent Jewish figures Sabath came to know through his work: Rabbi David Saperstein, the Jewish lawyer and leader who served as U.S. Goodwill Ambassador for International Religious Freedom under former President Barack Obama, and world famous author. and human rights activist Natan Sharansky.
Saperstein is scheduled to appear three times the weekend of June 3 — once to address a Confirmation class, once to introduce musical duo Kol B’Seder and once to deliver a speech on social justice. Sharansky, originally from Ukraine, will address the community on “Israel, World Jewry and the War in Ukraine” the following weekend. His lecture will be open to the public.
Their appearances will kick off a series of lectures that are expected to last at least until the end of the year, focusing largely on the human roles that Judaism can play on the world stage. All of this is in line with the aspirations of the inaugural rabbi.
“The sky is the limit,” says Sabath. “We have the opportunity to truly become the most inspiring, innovative and impactful congregation, not only in the community, but in the country.”
For now, the officials who ran the union just seem happy to have a time, a place, and an opportunity to come together in person to worship with old friends and make new ones. Heinl, for his part, sees Friday’s event as a major milestone.
“We worked so hard to merge the congregations,” she says. “Everyone is ready to celebrate.”