Oaklands Beth Abraham votes to rejoin Conservative umbrella

At the ripe old age of 95, Temple Beth Abraham has decided to get hitched all over again.

After severing its ties in the mid-1990s with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the board of the Conservative Oakland congregation has voted to reaffiliate with the movement's national umbrella group.

"We've always identified as a Conservative congregation," said Sandy Margolin, board vice president. "It just seemed like time to get back in the fold, as it were."

The congregation's move to reconnect with the New York-based organization was neither impulsive nor unanimous, however.

The debate began last November and involved several board votes, a congregational meeting, presentations by local USCJ representatives, a nonbinding membership poll and a special session in June.

The final board vote, taken in late August, was "very, very close," said Ellen Kaufman, the board's president.

Foes of the renewed alliance voiced lingering concerns about a financial quarrel that triggered the separation several years ago. Others objected to the movement's stands against the hiring of gay and lesbian professional staff and on the membership of interfaith families.

In the end, said Rabbi Mark Bloom, the board concluded that the congregation would gain from the affiliation without having to compromise its practices or philosophical positions.

"We're going in as who we are," said Bloom.

"We're still going to be an open, welcoming congregation. The sort of tone and the way we welcome [people] will stay the same."

As for the old financial dispute, the congregation received an assurance that the USCJ wouldn't seek to collect any past dues. "I ran interference for them with New York by insisting that those past debts be waived," said Alan R. Rothstein, president-elect of the USCJ's Northern California region.

"We said, 'Look, we want this congregation to be affiliated. Without them, we're missing a vital link in our movement.'"

Rothstein said the USCJ board would vote at a meeting Dec. 8 in New York on admitting Temple Beth Abraham. The organization has about 750 synagogues, including 20 in Northern California. Two other local Conservative synagogues, Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley and Congregation B'nai Israel in Petaluma, are not affiliated with the national body.

Bloom believes that his 320-family congregation will gain from the renewed affiliation.

The benefits of membership include support with programming, leadership training, curriculum development, and forming youth and senior groups. The synagogue also can tap into a network of contacts and even get discounts on prayerbooks and other publications.

Overall, "I think it's very important to be part of a larger movement," said Bloom, who described the move as "something that I supported but was not driving.

"If you're going to be part of the movement, you really have to be part of a movement, with all the good, bad and the ugly that entails."

Hired in July 2001, the rabbi admitted that "truthfully, it wasn't something I wanted to deal with at all in my first year."

Bloom said the issue was "very painful" for some congregants. But he remained hopeful that the differences would be patched up, adding, "I don't think we'll have a single person quit over it."

Rick Heeger, a board vice president who opposed the affiliation, questioned the $12,000 to $15,000 yearly cost of joining USCJ. "I think it's a lot of money," he said.

He also objects to the USCJ's stand on homosexuality and some other social issues. He was confident, however, that those positions wouldn't affect the synagogue's operations.

"I never felt and I don't feel now that we're going to be dictated to about who we can hire and who we can't," he said.

Now that the decision has been made, Heeger said, "I'm really willing to give them a chance. We'll see what happens.

Bonnie Burt, the board secretary, also opposed affiliation, saying some of the USCJ's stands "are frankly too conservative with a little 'c' for me." But she also was swayed by arguments of those wanting to join and "try to change this from within."

Margolin, meanwhile, said he was looking forward to the opportunity to "reconnect with our fellow Conservative Jews and support the movement."

Besides the network of programs and services available through USCJ, "some of the benefits are intangible," he said.

Kaufman, the board president, doubted that the decision would create a "rupture" among members.

"I'm really pleased and proud that we went through this process and went through this dialogue and I think we learned a lot about each other," she said. "I'm absolutely confident we'll still be the same community once we send in those papers."