Synagogue New: Baton Rouge’s two congregations decide to reunite

Beth Shalom and B’nai Israel in Baton Rouge (file photo)

The weekend of Aug. 13, Beth Shalom in Baton Rouge held the last event in its Covid-extended 75th anniversary celebration. The following weekend, Beth Shalom members, along with members of B’nai Israel, the congregation it had originally split from in 1945, overwhelmingly agreed to reunite, in separate congregational votes.

The historic vote on Aug. 22 has led to excitement in Baton Rouge over the prospect of a stronger, unified Jewish community that can offer a wider range of services and activities.

According to leaders of the congregations, that was the primary driving force behind the merger, as the main issue that caused the schism has long since become moot — whether there should be a Jewish homeland in the land of Israel.

Linda Posner, co-chair of the Joint Synagogue Exploratory Committee with Barry Blumberg, said unification “has been talked about for the last 20 to 30 years, off and on.” Often, when two congregations merge, a major issue is what to do regarding the existing rabbis, but in 2020 both congregations found themselves embarking on a search, as Natan Trief left Beth Shalom and Jordan Goldson left B’nai Israel. Leaders of both congregations felt the time was right to move forward with unification talks.

Andy Blumberg, president of B’nai Israel, said the rabbinic issue “was always a hangup in the past.”

There was also a sense that “instead of having competing facilities and splitting our resources, and time and effort and engagement, we can now come together and have a dynamic positive future for our children and grandchildren,” Blumberg said.

Mark Posner, president of Beth Shalom, said the vote was “a whole new ballgame” that “didn’t really reflect on why we split, it was how we can move forward together.”

The JSEC was formed to discuss issues related to unification, and each congregation brought in an interim rabbi — Teri Appleby at Beth Shalom and Batsheva Appel at B’nai Israel — to serve while the congregations went through the process. The discussions took close to two years.

Several task forces were set up to discuss policies on a range of issues, from ritual to facilities to personnel. While the religious schools had been holding joint classes, there was an effort to do more joint programming, including a monthly joint Shabbat service. As with everything else, the Covid pandemic slowed down the process.

“We had hoped to have a lot more joint programming, we had more of it planned, then Covid hit us… We had to scrap all the in-person stuff and roll back to joint services,” Andy Blumberg said.

“We didn’t have as much in-person interaction during the process as we would have liked,” relying on virtual sessions, but “it was important that people were part of the conversation,” Linda Posner said. There were also congregational surveys.

About 70 or 80 took part in the various task forces under the JSEC umbrella. In July, each congregation hosted “Building Our Reform Jewish Future in Baton Rouge: Stronger Together,” an informational session to present the proposal in advance of the vote. Despite the lengthy process, Mark Posner said “it wasn’t a done deal by any means” and they were going to respect the wishes of the community no matter the outcome.

Linda Posner said “The vast majority of the community wanted this, and that’s what matters.”

It was emphasized that the two congregations were approaching the process “from a position of strength,” so it wasn’t a matter of needing each other, “we want each other.”

The unification of the congregations will take effect on Jan. 1, 2022. B’nai Israel has about 200 members and Beth Shalom has about 140, the combined congregation will have over 300 members.

Baton Rouge has had the unusual designation of being a community where the only two congregations have both been Reform, though a Chabad presence was also established in 2015. In communities of their size, when there are two congregations, typically one is Reform and the other is a Conservative congregation that likely started out as Orthodox, as in Huntsville, Shreveport, Montgomery, Mobile and Pensacola.

Blumberg said that when Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, visited for the Beth Shalom anniversary, he also had a lunch with B’nai Israel, and told them that he knew of many Conservative-Reform mergers, but this was likely the first between two Reform congregations, outside of mergers in large communities that have numerous congregations of varying denominations.

B’nai Israel dates back to 1858, when a cemetery association was formed to bury six Jews who died in the Yellow Fever epidemic. The next year, a congregation was formed, but plans were put on hold during the Civil War. In 1868, Shaare Chessed was reorganized and the first synagogue building was dedicated in 1877. Two years later, the Reform prayerbook was adopted, moving the congregation away from Orthodoxy.

After being evicted from their building over a title issue and the reacquiring it, the congregation reincorporated in 1885, becoming B’nai Israel.

In the early 20th century, as support for Zionism grew, it was not unusual for Reform congregations to be opposed to the movement, as a primary goal was to integrate into American society and not be accused of dual loyalty. There was also a rejection of the idea that Jews are a distinct people in need of a homeland, but simply a religious group. In 1937, though, the Reform movement shifted from its 1885 position of being anti-Zionist to “neutrality,” prompting many anti-Zionist congregations to join the American Council of Judaism in protest.

Rabbi Walter Peiser, who arrived at B’nai Israel in 1927, was a strong anti-Zionist figure.

In April 1945, Peiser and the congregational president sent out a letter stating that the congregation supported the Classical Reform position on Zionism, and “our nation is America and our religion is Judaism.” All officers and board members of B’nai Israel had to pledge that they rejected the idea of a Jewish homeland.

In response, a group of 29 families broke away and formed Liberal Synagogue. Many were relative newcomers to Baton Rouge, and had not been comfortable with the Southern Classical Reform practices that eschewed kipot and talleisim.

When Liberal Synagogue was established, they allowed kippot and talleisim, and instituted the practice of Bar Mitzvah, which Reform congregations had replaced with Confirmation, but have since adopted.

At last year’s Beth Shalom anniversary weekend, Rabbi Bernard Baskin, who came to serve Liberal Synagogue in 1947, said one of the reasons he came to Baton Rouge was “I was a loyal Zionist… Liberal Synagogue was making a natural and understandable protest at what they felt was an unfair and unnecessary outlook in terms of Israel.”

The philosophical split persisted, as in 1967 B’nai Israel’s leaders refused to let the congregation host a fundraiser for Israel. Rabbi Barry Weinstein, who served B’nai Israel from 1983 to 2007, led a shift toward support for Israel and into adopting some more traditional practices, though Beth Shalom still was still seen as having a more traditional orientation.

Due to confusion about the orientation of the two congregations, Liberal Synagogue changed its name to Beth Shalom in the 1980s.

In the past, when unification came up, there were still many in leadership who “were able to remember that discussion and split” in the 1940s, Andy Blumberg said, “which kind of prevented real discussion.”

Mark Posner noted that young families in particular were eager for the unification, and older members “realized if this is the best thing for the community, they were supportive of it.”

Linda Posner said “the process took the time it needed to take,” and some people thought they were moving too slow, while others thought it was moving too fast.

Mark Posner said this is an opportunity “for us to use the history of both synagogues that have been so strong in the community” and build on it “to make something completely new and even better, offering more programming and more education.”

After B’nai Israel voted, Weinstein held up a copy of the 1945 letter by Peiser and said he was pleased that the letter that was the “proximate cause” of the schism could finally be put aside, and praised God for the reunification.

“From the earliest days that Linda and I and our daughters arrived for me to commence my service to Congregation B’nai Israel nearly 40 years ago, I made a personal promise to myself that I would do all I possibly could to help heal the division in our Jewish community,” he said.

Currently, the Articles of Incorporation list the new entity as Unified Jewish Congregation of Baton Rouge, but until a name is chosen, it is being referred to as Synagogue New.

The new congregation’s board consists of six members each from B’nai Israel and Beth Shalom, with two from each congregation being named to two, three and four-year terms.

While officers will be elected by the board for one-year terms, the officers can be re-elected for up to three years. After the first three years, there is a two-year term limit.

Similarly, for the first three years, major decisions, such as the selection of a rabbi, adoption of a congregational name or sale of a facility, are subject to a three-fourths vote. After three years, the supermajority will be two-thirds of those present.

The first tasks for the new board will likely be to elect officers, select a name and begin the process for a rabbinic search.

While the JSEC produced a series of recommendations, the new board is not bound by those decisions and can choose a different path. Many of the task force reports were posted online for community members to review.

One major step is what to do with the two facilities. The recommendation is that the Beth Shalom property on Jefferson Highway be sold, with proceeds going toward a major renovation and expansion at B’nai Israel on Kleinert Avenue. As a manifestation of the unification, the properties are now generally being referred to by the street names, rather than the congregational names.

It is anticipated that a condition of the sale on Jefferson Highway is that the building would then be leased back to the congregation for use as renovations take place on Kleinert Avenue. Blumberg said the 1950s-era sanctuary needs “some freshening up” and expansion so there will be sufficient space for the unified congregation.

It is also envisioned that the Rayner Learning Center for preschool children will move from Jefferson Highway to Kleinert Avenue. However, no plans have been approved or drawn up yet.

The Ritual task force had nine meetings to compare a wide range of practices in the two congregations, everything from kashrut to service structure to which prayer book will be used. B’nai Israel still holds some Union Prayer Book services. It was recommended that rather than have different style services at the same time, one service should be held, to emphasize community.

Another example is Rosh Hashanah services, which B’nai Israel does for one day while Beth Shalom observes both days. It was recommended that Congregation New would offer services on both days.

Kashrut guidelines were “remarkably similar” with the only difference being Beth Shalom requiring that meat products be certified kosher, instead of kosher-style. The task force recommended that kosher meats be “preferred and encouraged,” but if non-certified products are served, they be labeled.

The task force reported that “our discussions did not identify any major barriers to building a stronger, more inclusive and unified Reform congregation in Baton Rouge.”

Lindsey Burton, a board member of Synagogue New, said “My husband and I are thrilled that our young sons will grow up in a unified Baton Rouge Jewish community. Baton Rouge is a small town, so giving them a bigger community here will be a wonderful springboard to Jewish life beyond our city.”

Weinstein, who is now rabbi emeritus at B’nai Israel, said the merger “speaks so very well about the inherent nature of the current and recent Jewish leadership in our small Jewish community.”

Linda Posner said “We love what we do and are excited about having more people to do it with, and we think that is the driving force for everybody.”

Now, the new leadership has a big task ahead.

Andy Blumberg said “Now the hard work begins for the new board and whatever committees they deem important enough to form immediately.”

He added, “There’s a lot of work in front of us that we’re all happy to be taking on.”