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2 Jewish congregations weigh merger Beth Am, Sinai facing dwindling memberships

Members of two Jewish congregations in Amherst will consider a proposal to merge under one roof.

Leadership of Temple Beth Am and Temple Sinai are putting together the finishing details on a proposed merger agreement that will be presented to membership in mid-March.

Congregational votes on the agreement are tentatively scheduled for April 18.

The proposed merger could be the first of its kind in the country between a Reform congregation and a Reconstructionist congregation.

Leaders of the two synagogues have been meeting for more than a year, after talks broke down between Temple Beth Am and Temple Beth Zion, the area's largest Jewish congregation.

A two-thirds vote of the memberships of both Temple Beth Am and Temple Sinai will be required for the merger to proceed.

Like many area Christian churches, synagogues have been struggling for years with dwindling memberships.

The area's Jewish population has shrunk dramatically over the past few decades, with estimates now pegged at between 10,000 and 12,000 people.

In addition, it appears that fewer Jews in Western New York are actively religious or affiliated with a synagogue.

"People aren't going to temple," said Todd Sugarman, president of Temple Beth Am, which has about 475 members. "They're only going to temple twice a year. A lot of people are saying, 'I don't want to pay the dues.' It's getting tougher and tougher."

The decline already forced two Conservative congregations to merge in 2008, forming Temple Beth Zedek.

Leaders of both Temple Beth Am on Sheridan Drive and Temple Sinai on Alberta Drive said they wanted to pursue a merger now, before a financial crisis occurs and forces the congregations into making poor decisions about the future.

"The time is right because we're both on financially stable ground," said Sugarman. "We all know we have to do this for our survival."

Temple Sinai has about 175 members.

"We both are trying to be proactive," said Jill Hamilton, president of Temple Sinai. "The negotiations really have been very fair and open through the whole process."

Temple Beth Am is affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism, while Temple Sinai is part of the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.

The two progressive branches of Judaism are largely similar in their philosophies and theologies, although there are a few key differences.

Reconstructionists, for example, remove from their prayers a traditional expression of Jews as the "chosen people" of God, and they maintain a broader view of God, who often is addressed in prayers as a spiritual being who is manifested to human beings in many forms.

The congregations already celebrated a joint worship service together, with participants choosing for themselves what prayers to use during a small portion of the service where the Reform prayers differ from those of the Reconstructionist tradition.

"Everybody was very comfortable with that," said Hamilton.

The merged congregation would be located at the Temple Beth Am site, which is just east of North Forest Road. The site is larger and has more updated facilities, said Hamilton.

Artwork, Torah scrolls and memorial plaques from Temple Sinai would be moved to the Sheridan Drive location, she added. The Alberta Drive facility would then be sold.

Rabbi Irwin Tanenbaum of Temple Beth Am is slated to retire in 2013. Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein of Temple Sinai has a contract through 2014. Lazarus-Klein is part of Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association and plans to join the Reform Rabbinic Association, as well, said Hamilton.

The Jewish community more broadly is engaged in discussions to bring its infrastructure in line with current population.

"We're very, very focused on downsizing the footprint of the Jewish community so we can afford to maintain our institutions and operate more efficiently," said Michael Wise, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo. "Collaboration is the word of the day. We're all talking about it."

At its peak in the 1970s, the local Jewish population was 25,000 to 30,000 people. With less than half that number, it's become increasingly difficult to keep everything going.

Last fall, Kadimah School, a private Jewish school that provides instruction from prekindergarten through eighth grade, put its Eggertsville property on the market in an effort to cut costs.

Kadimah officials cited a shrinking Jewish population as the cause of its decline in enrollment. The school is not closing, but the school's board is seeking a smaller, more affordable space in which to operate it.