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The Boston Globe

South

Jewish congregations may form new synagogue

Faced with declining membership and financial resources, three synagogues — Ahavath Torah Congregation in Stoughton, Temple Beth Emunah in Brockton, and Temple Beth Am in Randolph — are looking to combine and form a new, super-sized synagogue that can serve the area’s Conservative Jewish community for years to come.

If all three congregations move forward with their tentative plans to unify, their yet-to-be-named synagogue could debut as early as summer 2014. Its members would worship at Temple Beth Emunah in Brockton temporarily until a new temple is established.

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Where the permanent home would be located is one of a number of factors to be decided in the coming months, as the three congregations take the first steps toward unification, a process their leaders call regionalization. The move to merge, which will require approval of all three congregations, has been met with both feelings of hope and feelings of sadness in each synagogue.

“It’s very exciting, but it’s also bittersweet,” said Alan Teperow, executive director of the Synagogue Council of Massachusetts, a Newton-based organization that represents synagogues across the state. “The reason the synagogues are going forward with this effort is . . . declining membership, and financially they’re finding it difficult to maintain their congregational communities on their own. There’s no question about it, that together they’re going to be much stronger.”

Collaborations among Jewish congregations are nothing new, said Teperow, whose father was once president of the Randolph temple. In the past 31 years, Teperow has seen about a half-dozen mergers, but in each of those there were two synagogues pairing up, or one absorbing the other. The idea of three congregations combining to form a new synagogue is “very unusual,” said Teperow, who is serving as a consultant in the regionalization effort.

He says the merger presents a “fabulous opportunity” for growth.

Leaders in all three synagogues say they are still financially viable and are trying to take a proactive approach to ensure future sustainability.

The congregations have been discussing the possibility of teaming up since June 2011. Earlier this month, the congregations met separately to decide whether to support a nonbinding letter of intent to move forward and form a unification plan. All three voted in favor by a two-thirds majority.

Now the goal is to have a plan ready by the end of the year. If it is approved by all three congregations, they will form a new entity with a new name.

Leaders hope this will reverse their falling membership. In 1961, when Temple Beth Am was dedicated, the Globe reported that it served some 400 families. At times during the 1960s and ’70s, the congregation included more than 600 families, according to Susan Lit, the most recent past president of the synagogue.

But the number of Temple Beth Am’s member units (individuals and families) has dropped from 418 in 2005 to 327 in 2011 — a 22 percent decrease in just six years, according to its website. “We are seeing a decline in membership,” said Lit, who says the vote to unify was a “very emotional decision for a lot of people.”

Similarly, membership at Ahavath Torah, a Conservative synagogue founded in 1919, has dropped from “well over 300” families a decade ago to about 215 families today, said David Schulze, synagogue president and chairman of the committee working on the regionalization effort.

“When you look at the state of the Jewish community in the south area right now, when you look at the bigger picture, it’s almost a necessity,” said Schulze. “The survival of the Conservative movement in the south area is at risk without some form of adjustment to revitalize the community.”

Schulze said his congregation approved its letter of intent by more than a two-thirds majority vote. He called it a “stepping-off point,” and acknowledged there is much work to be done in the initiative.

In Brockton, Temple Beth Emunah, founded in 1952, has seen even bigger changes. The city once had four synagogues, but Beth Emunah is the lone congregation today. Temple president Steve Merlin said its membership is also only a fraction of what it was when he joined, in 1980.

“The congregation realizes that if you had 400 families 20 years ago and we have 200 now, we can’t keep going,” said Merlin. As at Temple Beth Am, a significant number of Temple Beth Emunah’s members come from other suburbs to worship in Brockton.

“It’s already a regional synagogue,” said Merlin, who lives in Easton.

He said the fact that his temple was chosen to be the interim home for the proposed new synagogue has probably made the unification decision easier for members. On April 4, the congregation voted, 54 to 1, in favor of moving forward with the process.

“It’s an emotional vote for each congregation. It’s a huge change,” said Merlin. “It cuts both ways. It’s sad for each individual entity that it won’t exist anymore, yet at the same time we have to move forward and look to the future. The Jewish community in the south area is still going to survive, number one, and hopefully this new entity will grow, expand, and hopefully thrive with our combined efforts.”

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.
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