2016-05-25 / Voice at the Shore

Beth Judah and Emeth Shalom will merge to become “Shirat Hayam” this summer

By ELLEN WEISMAN STRENGER
Voice shore correspondent

The marriage was beshert— that was what congregants at Beth Judah in Ventnor and Emeth Shalom in Margate overwhelmingly agreed on May 1 when both separately voted to merge the two congregations into one entity, called “Shirat Hayam,” which means “Song of the Seas.”

The two island congregations— one Reform and one Conservative—are now “family” and are already working to create a home together at Beth Judah’s current location in West Ventnor, said Emeth Shalom President Marc Needleman.

There, they will be “merged in all but the ritual area of our synagogue,” said Sheila Friedman, president of Beth Judah, which is Conservative. Although separate Reform and Conservative services will be held on Shabbat and holidays, social and educational programs will include both groups, she noted.

Representatives of both synagogues are now jointly planning summer programs and renovations to the building at 700 N. Swarthmore Avenue, including the creation of a new sanctuary for Reform worship services. Leaders aim to finalize the union by July 1 and for Emeth Shalom to move into its new home shortly thereafter, said Needleman.

“We are very happy because this allows both of our congregations to remain on the island,” said Needleman. “There is a lot of vibrancy among both congregations, and we are eager to become a leading congregation in this Jewish community.”

Friedman agreed. “Bringing our resources together will make us stronger. We are excited to bring people together on the island who care about perpetuating Judaism, Reform and Conservative. Now we have a bigger base for Jewish programming,” she added.

The two congregations have been investigating the possibility of merging since the start of 2015. A year ago, congregants of both synagogues received a draft merger proposal. Last summer, Emeth Shalom sought to acclimate congregants to the idea and to Beth Judah’s building by holding Shabbat services and its annual Salute to Stockton speaker series there. By all accounts, this trial run went well. Since then, the two synagogues have been further exploring the issues involved in merging, in preparation for a final vote.

That vote took place May 1. Each synagogue held its own meeting to vote on the merger and allow congregants to voice their concerns. About half the congregation from each synagogue (57 people at Emeth Shalom and about 160 at Beth Judah) took part in the vote.

Emeth Shalom congregants were most concerned about feeling at home in their new building, said Needleman. Anticipating this concern, synagogue leaders had already drawn up plans for creating a Reform sanctuary in Beth Judah’s current chapel area. The plans call for enlarging the chapel and installing Emeth Shalom’s stained glass windows and other fixtures from the temple’s current sanctuary.

At Beth Judah, the name change caused the most angst. But as Friedman explained, the individual names of the two former synagogues will appear beneath the name “Shirat Hayam” on building signs and in the new logo. “None of us want the names to disappear,” she stressed.

Despite these concerns, congregants recognized the need to change and merge.

“We can’t go on as if we are still in the 1990s,” noted Friedman. When the community changes, institutions must change too.”

Emeth Shalom congregants recognized this too, said Rabbi Geller. “Everyone agreed that given the demographics on the island, with all the shuls we have here, we can’t afford to make Shabbos for ourselves individually anymore. We have to consolidate. It was bittersweet because our congregation has been in this building 65 years and it is their spiritual home away from home.”

Although Geller has held the pulpit at 8501 Ventnor Avenue in Margate for a good 30 years, he welcomes this new “creative unity” and the brighter future it offers. “From a personal point of view, this change comes at the end of my career as a rabbi,” said Geller, who plans to continue at Shirat Hayam for a three-year transition period. “I would rather culminate my career on a higher note like that, instead of just watching my congregation diminish. This kind of progressive unity puts us on the cutting edge of Jewish history!” 

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