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New York comes to Connecticut

Temple Shearith Israel and Jewish Family Congregation join forces

RIDGEFIELD – June dawned with a new synagogue merger, this one a unique cross-border shidduch.

Pending approval by the New York State Supreme Court, Jewish Family Congregation (JFC) in South Salem, N.Y. and Temple Shearith Israel (TSI) in Ridgefield will unite into a new synagogue, housed in the TSI building on Peaceable Street. The merger was approved at simultaneous congregational meetings on May 31. Once the merger is approved by the N.Y. State Supreme Court, both congregations will have to vote once again on the legal merger and will construct a new board. Connecticut does not require court approval.

Just three miles apart, both synagogues are relatively young and small. JFC was founded in 1981 and has 120 member families; 14-year-old TSI has 250 families. Now, with a combined geographic scope comprising upper and northern Westchester County, and upper and mid-Fairfield County, the resulting synagogue will represent one of the area’s largest Reform Jewish congregations.

jewish family congregation

Jewish Family Congregation

The consolidated congregation will be led by Rabbi Marcus Burstein (JFC) and Rabbi David Reiner (TSI), and longtime TSI cantor Deborah Katchko-Gray. JFC education director Leslie Gottlieb will head the combined religious school, which has already been convening at TSI. JFC cantor Kerry Ben-David z”l, who would have remained on the staff of the new entity, died suddenly of a heart attack in February.

It was the 2008 financial crisis that sparked informal discussions among the respective synagogue boards about a possible merger.

“A lot of temples began to experience financial pressures, and I would put TSI and JFC in this camp,” says TSI co-president Steve Landzberg. “When people scale back on their financial commitments, you don’t want to give up your community and religious institution but nonetheless, when it comes to that versus paying your mortgage, you’re usually going to choose the mortgage over the religious institution.”

The idea of a merger gained momentum over the last year. “Each synagogue came to the notion because of financial issues but very quickly, we all came to see that the reason for forming a union was about much more than financial considerations,” says JFC co-president Glenn Kurlander. “Certainly, financial considerations are important, but there’s much more driving the desire to come together. Those other qualitative matters, at the end of the day, are much more important: building a more robust, more vital community, building something that has the potential to be enduring and that can be more relevant to the Jewish community than either of the legacy congregations can be separately.”

A JFC-TSI merger made the most sense, according to Landzberg and Kurlander, not only because of geographic proximity but also because of parallel cultures.

“We very quickly discovered that our values were remarkably similar,” says Kurlander. “We saw the world in the same way and we had very similar hospitable traditions and practices.”

Given the two conventional ways to navigate financial straits – raise dues or cut costs – the new synagogue represents the best of both worlds.

“In this case, if we cut our facilities costs materially, we actually enhance the overall Jewish experience,” Landzberg says. “We are broadening our community, offering more services and programming, and enhancing the vitality of the experience for the community and membership by unifying two sets of people into one structure.”

JFC plans to sell its building on Smith Ridge Road. A new name for the combined congregation is in the works.

CAP: Temple Shearith Israel

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