Or Chadash, Temple Emanu-El explore merger

A joint Congregation Or Chadash-Temple Emanu-El ‘100 Menorah Celebration’ Shabbat on Dec. 27 filled the sanctuary at Temple Emanu-El. (Simon Rosenblatt - Facebook)

In an era when non-Orthodox synagogues throughout the country have seen membership decline, two Reform synagogues in Tucson, Temple Emanu-El and Congregation Or Chadash, are considering joining forces. Temple Emanu-El, established in 1910, is the oldest synagogue in Arizona, while Or Chadash is celebrating its 25th year.

After more than a year of exploration, last month both congregations approved a non-binding Memorandum of Understanding, signaling the willingness of the parties to move forward.

Key elements of the MOU include that the combined congregation and religious school would be housed at 225 N. Country Club Road, Emanu-El’s location, and that clergy active as of July 1, 2020, including Or Chadash’s Rabbi Thomas Louchheim and Cantor Janece Cohen and Emanu-El’s Cantorial Soloist Marjorie Hochberg, would continue in their roles. Emanu El’s Rabbi Batsheva Appel has declined to seek renewal of her contract, which ends June 30. A target date of Dec. 31 for completing the legal consolidation of the two congregations was set, but it is subject to change based on the progress of various committees and the approval of the two synagogue boards, according to the MOU.

“This is the second overture from Temple Emanu-El to us,” says Louchheim, explaining that the first was about two years after he started Or Chadash, but came to naught after Or Chadash members suggested, “Let’s date before we get married.” 

Emanu-El’s immediate past president, Mona Gibson, says conversations in the community in recent years about joining the congregations “for the greater good” prompted her to approach Ben Vogel, then-president of Or Chadash, in September or October 2018. The idea had become more feasible after Rabbi Samuel Cohon’s resignation from Emanu-El in 2017, says Gibson.

Appel recalls “a groundswell” of Emanu-El congregants asking to meet with her, suggesting a merger. “I’d say, ‘I think that’s a great idea, why don’t you go forth and talk with people,’” she says, adding, “We’re in a period of major transition, so it’s a good time to take a look and see what the possibilities are.”

By January 2019, a steering committee of ambassadors from each congregation was established.  This group set out to explore two scenarios: continued or increased collaborations in targeted areas, such as religious school and Sisterhood, and a merger, with analysis of potential positive outcomes, negative aspects, and strategies to address barriers to a successful merger.

“The first step was to see if it was financially feasible, and it was,” says Elaine Jones, Ph.D., current president of Or Chadash. “We found there are lots of benefits and nothing that can’t be overcome with good advice. We are excited about how much more we can do together for our Jewish community and the community at large.”

In August 2019, with guidance from the Union for Reform Judaism’s director of consulting and transition management, Rabbi David Fine, the congregations formed task forces with members from each synagogue to dive deeper into eight areas:  finance, governance, facilities, religious school, worship, clergy, communications, and joint programming. The ambassadors’ and task force reports are available on both congregations’ websites.

Scott Arden, president of Temple Emanu-El, notes that the ambassadors brought together even people who were “doubters” to work together on the task forces.

As the process developed, there has been excitement and fear on both sides, says Gibson.

“This is a human thing, not necessarily a Jewish thing, that people are resistant to change,” she says.

One area of concern has been how worship will be conducted. “Stylistically, there are some differences,” says Appel. “I think it is closer than people realize.”  But she understands that even a small change can be unsettling.

Arden says that initially, diverse worship services can be offered, with room at Temple Emanu-El among the sanctuary, chapel, and religious school to conduct services simultaneously. “People will vote with their feet,” he says.

Some Or Chadash members who had previously belonged to Temple Emanu-El expressed discomfort with the idea of “going back,” says Louchheim. It is important to listen to everyone, he says, and to have discussions with congregants to compare the cultures of both synagogues, an idea he’s discussed with Rabbi Scott Saulson, an expert on transitions who will serve as interim rabbi at Emanu-El for a year after Appel’s contract expires.

With about 400 member families currently at Emanu-El and just over 370 at Or Chadash, a combined congregation, even with some attrition, would be large enough to warrant two rabbis under the guidelines of the URJ.

“There is a sense of loss” in bringing two congregations together as one entity, Louchheim acknowledges, “and I’m sure there are people who are concerned at Temple about the tyrant Rabbi Louchheim coming in and telling everyone what to do once Batsheva leaves … [even though] it’s not how I’ve operated.”

Indeed, Arden says, “I give Rabbi Louchheim a lot of credit for being very open to not having a hierarchical model of senior and assistant or associate rabbi, but having more of a partnership model.”

Another area of concern has been maintenance of Emanu-El’s facility. Emanu-El’s first buildings at the Country Club road site were completed in 1949, with the religious school and sanctuary completed in 1962, and a preschool and offices added later. From 1910-1949, the congregation was housed at the Stone Avenue Temple, now the Jewish History Museum.

The facilities task force identified $500,000 worth of repairs necessary for health and safety, as well as short-term and longer term desired enhancements, while the finance task force notes, “We worked from an assumption that the costs of repairs/upgrades would be drawn from existing cash flow. Funds from the sale of the Or Chadash property were not included in these projections.”   

Gibson addressed rumors that “the roof is falling down around us.”

“It’s not like that at all. We’ve put in what needed to be put in. We’ve maintained [the facility] within our means. When a roof patching is going to work over a roof overhaul, we’re going to go with the patching,” she says.

Lynn Rae Lowe, head of Or Chadash’s caring committee, says that she didn’t start out with a strong opinion for or against the merger. “There were pros and cons, [but] I’m sticking with the congregation no matter what the decision was.”

While she loves Or Chadash, Lowe, an internationally renowned artist, admits that Temple Emanu-El’s sanctuary is a draw for her, having grown up attending a “gorgeous” synagogue in Michigan, where if at times, “the liturgy didn’t support me, a beautiful environment did.” Attending services in the trailer that is Or Chadash’s multipurpose room has been “aesthetically challenging.”

On the other hand, “Or Chadash was the first time in my life that I picked a place, and I was older, that resonated with me because it made me go inside, not satisfied my outside.”

In her caring committee role, Lowe also looks forward to utilizing Emanu-El’s kitchen and community room, and to joining forces with her counterpart at Emanu-El, Liz Shallenberger. They recently met for the first time, and made “an instant connection,” says Lowe, discussing how to combine the two committees “into a community resource that was really viable and able to be reflective of what people needed.” 

Shallenberger, who has been a member of Or Chadash and Emanu-El, says she loves both rabbis, Louchheim and Appel, and that there are great people in both of the congregations. She has thought the merger a good idea from the start. “We have all this space we can’t use, it just makes perfect sense to me,” she says.

Looking ahead, Arden says the first set of task forces tackled some big questions, but many nuts and bolts details remain, from personnel matters to the amalgamation of the congregations’ sacred objects. “There’s a lot of hard work ahead of us.”