WESTPORT – This year marks the 64th anniversary of Temple Israel, the oldest Jewish congregation in Westport. And with that milestone, the synagogue board has announced significant changes to the congregation’s leadership – changes that have been met by members with both surprise and dismay.
Founded in 1948 by a small group of families from Westport, Norwalk, and Stamford as Temple Israel of Fairfield County, the congregation dedicated its permanent home on Coleytown Road in Westport in 1959. That same year, Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein took the pulpit, leading a congregation that had grown to 250 families.
Rabbi Rubenstein retired in 1982, succeeded by Rabbi Robert Orkand. Two years later, Cantor Vicki Axe became the congregation’s first fulltime, formally trained cantor. When the temple celebrated its 40th anniversary, in 1988, Cantor Richard Silverman replaced Cantor Axe and membership had grown to 700 families. Today, that number is close to 850.
Over the next 18 months, after recently completing a strategic planning process and budget review, Temple Israel will undergo a significant transition. Cantor Silverman will retire as senior cantor at the end of June, but will stay on until June 2013, working with b’nai mitzvah students and serving as cantorial soloist at High Holidays services. Rabbi Orkand, will retire as senior rabbi at the end of June 2013. Both clergy-members will take on emeritus roles.
The synagogue board plans to hire an interim rabbi to fill a year-long tenure after Orkand retires. The congregation will then engage in a search process for a full-time senior rabbi.
As the board decided that the congregation can only afford a senior cantor, Assistant Cantor Scott Harris will leave the congregation at the end of June, as will Executive Director Sandy Silverstein. Rabbi Alysa Mendelson Graf, who has served the congregation since 2004 as assistant, and then associate, rabbi, is expected to remain at Temple Israel until the end of June 2013.
“It is important for you to know that none of these changes are driven by our strategic plan,” writes the shul’s president Diana Muller in a Jan. 25 letter to the congregation. “They are all part of the passage of time and the evolution of our Temple.” Muller references the year-long internal assessment the congregation just completed, which the board will draw from to plan out the temple’s transition, with help from the Union for Reform Judaism and the American Conference of Cantors.
In an email to congregants, Orkand wrote, “Temple Israel has been my life’s work. Even after nearly 30 years at Temple Israel, and even though the very personal choice to step down in 18 months is my own, it’s still hard to believe that the day has really come.”
In response to Muller’s letter, www.tiwestportvoices.com appeared. The website serves as a forum for temple members “to express their opinions through written letters regarding the staffing decisions of the Temple Israel Board of Trustees.”
So far, the overall tone is one of outrage, surprise, and disappointment.
Writes one congregant, “This is one of the most incredible pieces of communication I have ever received. It highlights a stunning mismanagement of a synagogue that my family was growing to love, and that we will now immediately plan to leave. What could you possibly have been doing in your meetings over the last year as you contemplated the future of our Synagogue? Thinking about how best to gut its leadership? This is one of the most complete and systemic failures of transition planning I have ever witnessed.”
Another member adds, “As a long-time member (24 years) of the congregation, I am deeply distressed by the news recently communicated as ‘personal decisions’ that ‘reflect the passage of time.’ It is far more than that. How else can one view a most unlikely confluence of events? After weeks of attempting to sugarcoat this most unpalatable deed we are presented with what is packaged as voluntary. If these developments were voluntary, I’m an astronaut.”
And finally, “Tomorrow I will send my final dues payment for the 2011-2012 fiscal year to the Temple. I am writing this letter because this is the first time, during the twenty years that I have been a Temple member, that I resent paying my dues. I know that I expressed my feelings clearly at the meeting held by several board members last Wednesday night, but as I continue to reflect on the proposed reorganization of my Temple, my displeasure with the decisions made and the leaders who made them, has only increased.”
Temple Israel begins its first series of information sessions over the next two weeks.