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Reform synagogues in Worcester ‘integrate,’ form new entity

Emily Holdstein and Carlton Watson, co-chairs of the integration steering committee.

Emily Holdstein and Carlton Watson, co-chairs of the integration steering committee.

By Mara Dresner

WORCESTER – For more than one year, Temple Emanuel and Temple Sinai, the Reform Jewish synagogues in Worcester, have been working to combine the two congregations. In June, more than 90-percent of members of both congregations approved what is being called an “integration” of the two entities.

The new congregation, Temple Emanuel Sinai (TES), will retain use of the Temple Sinai property at 661 Salisbury Street in Worcester and will explore options for renovation there once the integration of both synagogues is complete.

The Temple Emanuel membership voted to sell its building at 280 May Street to Worcester State University Foundation. The agreement included a provision that the new congregation may continue use of the building at 280 May Street for approximately two years. Rabbi Matthew Berger, the rabbi at Temple Emanuel, will serve as rabbi for the combined congregations.

Temple Emanuel was founded more than 92 years ago, while Temple Sinai was founded 55 years ago.

“It was really a matter of survival. We came together because financially, the congregations were not viable in the long term and the leadership recognized this in the stage before we were dealing with something urgent. We want to preserve the assets of the congregations and move forward productively. The timing just was right and it was financially just a necessity,” said Emily Holdstein, co-chair of the Integration Steering Committee. Holdstein was a member of the former Temple Sinai.

“It is the quality of our congregational life that we not only want to preserve, but we want to expand upon. We didn’t want to go in the opposite direction of cutting, cutting, so we wouldn’t have as vibrant a congregation. It was a matter of the quality of life, as well,” she added.

“There is a … viability that allows us to bring a richness and a passion as well as engaging in and having a vibrancy in this community,” said Carlton Watson, who co-chaired the committee. Watson was a member of the former Temple Emanuel. “We wanted to create an opportunity to rebuild a vibrant Reform Jewish community within the greater Worcester area.”

Watson said that both congregations had been experiencing declining memberships. The new congregation will have between 400 and 450 member units.

Dozens of congregants from both synagogues have been working on task forces for the integration.

“One of the most exciting things has been the number of people from both congregations who were engaged in the process and who have given life to this process. Close to 100 people were actively engaged in committees,” said Holdstein, who called that “inspiring.”

“The capacity of people working together and accomplishing the charges associated to each of the different task groups was phenomenal and a pleasant surprise. It was really remarkable and it was consistent across all the groups,” said Watson.

The congregations have been having joint services and events throughout the year.

“It’s been wonderful and very, very positive. We’ve gotten to know each other and build relationships,” said Watson.

Watson said that the two congregations are “similar in practices and rituals.” Still, it will be an adjustment to function as one congregation.

“It’s an emotional issue. We all love and treasure our congregations and where we’ve been and how we’ve been doing things. As much as this is about creating new vibrancy, there’s still recognition of the loss for what we’ve been in the past. It’s been challenging to find a way to reconcile that, to allow us to move forward,” said Watson.

For example, the congregations will be developing an online archive of many of the plaques that the synagogues have collected through the years, so that they will still be available for members to view and there will still be a historical record of them.

“We want the history of both congregations to be preserved and honored,” said Watson.

The new board includes members from both former congregations, and there will be co-presidents.

While the formal agreement to combine the congregations has been approved, the co-chairs agreed that there is much work yet to be done.

“This is the beginning of a new phase. The initial work is done in terms of getting here; we’ve been engaged in the process of making the decision to move forward. Now it’s about implementing it and making it come alive. There’s a lot of work to be done,” said Watson.

Part of that work is not slipping back into the patterns that led the congregations into difficulty.

“We’re looking at how we can meet needs better by modifying virtually everything we do,” said Holdstein.

“We both acknowledge as congregations that we were both doing the same thing and we label that … as the linear approach: We built it, a Jewish shul, and Jews will come,” said Watson. “We want to redefine that model. We recognize we need to define that model differently, how we define membership, how we define worship, how we define connection. We are revisiting it to reengineer it. It will be challenging.”

Some of the proof that they’ve been successful will only be known in the future.

“I think the collective leadership hope for the future is to be able to create the foundation for a reform congregation for our children and for our children’s children. We’re really not doing it for us per se but for our children,” said Watson. “In 25 years, looking back, it’s our collective hope that our children will thank us and say we were courageous to do this.”


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