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Two temples merging into Congregation Shir Shalom

Members of two temples in Amherst voted Tuesday evening to merge as one congregation -- the culmination of more than a year of talks and negotiations between leadership of the temples.

Pending final approval by the State Supreme Court, Temple Beth Am and Temple Sinai will become one organization, under the new name Congregation Shir Shalom, which translates to "Song of Peace."

The merger, expected to take effect July 1, is unusual because it involves two different movements within Judaism. Temple Beth Am on Sheridan Drive is affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, while Temple Sinai on Alberta Drive is part of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

The merged congregation intends to maintain a dual affiliation with both North American groups.

Congregation Shir Shalom plans to use the Sheridan Drive site, which is larger and has more updated facilities.

The Alberta Drive building will be sold, and potential buyers already have inquired about the property.

A two-thirds vote of approval in both congregations was required for the merger to proceed.

"It passed here by a strong majority," said Jill Hamilton, president of Temple Sinai. "In a way it's bittersweet, because it means we'll be closing our building eventually."

At Temple Beth Am, 306 people voted in favor of the merger and 42 against. At Temple Sinai, 123 people voted yes and 11 no.

"It overwhelmingly passed," said Todd Sugarman, president of Temple Beth Am. "It's nice to have that many votes. People do really care about the temple."

Both Sugarman and Hamilton acknowledged that much work lies ahead in blending the two congregations and their unique cultures and histories.

Hamilton predicted a period of "trial and error" as the congregations work through their new existence.

"Now we start having services together," said Sugarman. "It's getting people together now."

Neither Temple Beth Am nor Temple Sinai was in financial distress, but leaders of the congregations said they wanted to pursue a merger now to avoid a crisis in the future.

The merger is a consequence of the area's shrinking Jewish population, which is estimated at less than 12,000, down from more than 25,000 at its peak in the 1970s.

Temple Beth Am currently has about 475 member families and Temple Sinai about 175 member families.

Reform Judaism is the largest Jewish denomination in the U.S., and Reconstructionism is the smallest.

Congregation Shir Shalom will maintain two rabbis until Rabbi Irwin Tanenbaum of Temple Beth Am retires in 2013.

Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein of Temple Sinai has a contract through 2014.

A final service in the Temple Sinai building has not yet been set. Artwork, Torah scrolls and memorial plaques from the temple eventually will be moved to Sheridan Drive.