There’s a new synagogue on the scene in San Francisco. It doesn’t have a name yet, but it can trace its roots to 1860 and it owns two buildings.
In November, 90 percent of the members at Congregation Beth Israel Judea and Congregation B’nai Emunah voted in favor of merging their two communities. The plan had been in the works for some time, and the two synagogues have even run a joint religious school since 2012.
Leaders of both congregations say it will lead to greater financial stability, more vibrant events and a more secure future for Jewish life in the southwestern part of San Francisco.
The new congregation will have roughly 275 member units, with around 110 from B’nai Emunah and 165 from BIJ.
BIJ and B’nai Emunah got to know each other in recent years through the Southside Jewish Collaborative, a group of four nearby synagogues that joined forces in 2012 for educational, holiday and social justice events. (It also includes Congregation Ner Tamid and Or Shalom Jewish Community.)
Soon after, BIJ and B’nai Emunah began running a combined religious school program, which proved to be an immediate boon to both synagogues.
Sharon Bleviss, co-president of B’nai Emunah and a member for 23 years, remembers life before the combined school. “My five kids made up a third of the school at one time,” she recalled.
“My kids were the beneficiaries of the joined Sunday school, and it was great,” said Debra Braun, co-president of BIJ. “We went from being a tiny little religious school to one where the kids had a lot of friends and more teachers.”
Though BIJ is a Reform synagogue and B’nai Emunah is Conserative, the two congregations have a lot in common. Not only are they in the same general part of the city, 3½ miles apart, but there also is a spirit of friendliness and unpretentiousness that marks both communities.
Braun noticed it immediately the first time she visited BIJ. Her family had belonged to another San Francisco synagogue before that, but she said people there were often rude and wanted her to put her kids in child care during services.
“We walked into BIJ on a Friday night. It was a family service, and it felt very much at home to me,” she said. “There were kids up on the bimah, singing, moving around. It felt like if I was going to come back to shul, this was a comfortable and warm place. I felt like my whole family could be part of everything.”
Bleviss’ first impression of her future synagogue, B’nai Emunah, was similar. “I had been a member of two other Conservative synagogues in the city,” she said. “At the second one, nobody ever talked to me, nobody said hello. My daughter wanted a bat mitzvah, my husband was not Jewish at the time, and they would only let me participate. So I went on a search, walked into B’nai Emunah with my family on Purim, and people came and greeted us. The kids were off and playing immediately. My husband was taken aback by all the attention as we walked in. It was so different from our previous experience.”
Now she and Braun are confidently ready to join these two communities with such similar vibes.
But what about the big issues that come up in synagogue mergers? Which building to keep, what name to use, whose rabbi gets to stay?
The building and name issues have been punted down the road; those are minor details compared with the overall choice to merge, leaders at both synagogues said.
But the question of the rabbi has been handled with ease.
Rabbi Danny Gottlieb, who has led BIJ since 2011, already was approaching retirement, and after a six-month sabbatical beginning Jan. 1, he will become the new congregation’s rabbi emeritus. B’nai Emunah’s Rabbi Pam Frydman left her position in July.
So BIJ and B’nai Emunah have jointly hired a transitional leader, Rabbi Sami Barth, who will serve for two years and shepherd the congregations into their new shared reality. This is very much not his first rodeo. In fact, it’s Barth’s seventh stint as an interim or transitional rabbi.
“I have friends who think I’m crazy,” Barth said. “But I really see the impact of my work short-term and I find it very fulfilling. I now have these beautiful communities all over where I feel at home.”
But where is “home” right now? Because of the pandemic, Barth has not been to San Francisco since he was hired in August, and he has never set foot inside B’nai Emunah. Instead, he has been at home in Boston with his family.
“There’s nothing happening in person, so instead of sitting alone in an apartment in San Francisco, I’m at home being abused by my college-age kids,” he said. “So far it’s working out well.”
He has been to BIJ once, but it was years ago — a brief visit to see Rabbi Gottlieb, who is an old friend. The two men went to seminary together at Leo Baeck College in London.
For Gottlieb’s part, he said he feels good about BIJ’s new direction. He acknowledged that, to a large extent, financial and demographic realities necessitated the merger, but it’s more than that, he stressed.
“From the beginning, while we recognized the sustainability issue and combination of financial and human resources as an important piece of the merger, we also understood that [finances] alone could not be the only motivation,” Gottlieb said.
“We looked at our vision for the kind of synagogue that we would like to have, with vibrant and engaging religious services, social and tikkun olam programming, adult education, all these things — by pooling our resources from two communities into one, we would make all of that stronger and allow us to expand it and be successful.”
B’nai Emunah and BIJ each have unique histories.
B’nai Emunah was founded by the “Shanghailanders,” a group of German Jews who escaped to and lived in Shanghai during World War II. After the war, many of them settled in San Francisco, eventually founding B’nai Emunah in 1949; the congregation celebrated its 70th anniversary last year.
Services were held in German until 1968, when Rabbi Ted Alexander, himself a Shanghailander, entered the picture. Alexander who died at age 95 in 2016, casts a long shadow at B’nai Emunah and often is mentioned as a source of the community’s welcoming atmosphere.
Few of those original Shanghai refugees are still around, but their story is ever-present. The social hall of B’nai Emunah’s building, a former nightclub on Taraval Street three blocks from the ocean, is adorned with a large painting of four Shanghailanders with a map showing their journey from Germany to China to San Francisco.
Beth Israel Judea is itself the result of a merger in 1969. Congregation Beth Israel on Geary Boulevard, founded in 1860 as an Orthodox synagogue, had an aging membership and uncertain future. Across town, Temple Judea on Brotherhood Way (a street name temple members came up with themselves and convinced the city to change it to from Stanley Drive) was a vibrant Reform synagogue founded in 1953. Judea had many young families, a big Sunday school — and a big mortgage on their building, completed in 1964.
Beth Israel, which had become Conservative over the years, and Judea had a lot to offer each other, recalled Martin Segol, 85. His family had belonged to Beth Israel when he was a kid, and as an adult, he was a Temple Judea board member at the time of the merger.
“Basically, [Beth Israel’s] membership was comprised of older people who had been members for a long time,” he recalled. “They were looking to have their history carried on, and I think they wanted to have some change.”
Judea got financial security out of the deal, as well as the experience older members brought to the new congregation, Segol said.
The Beth Israel–Judea merger was highly unusual for the 1960s. “It was unheard of that Conservative and Reform synagogues would merge,” Gottlieb said. “And the distance to be bridged in terms of ritual practice and policies was quite wide between Beth Israel and Judea. It’s a little different now; the trends in both the Conservative and Reform movements in the intervening years has been such that the distance to be bridged between is much more manageable.”
BIJ’s Reform and Conservative influences were apparent for decades, with more Reform-style Friday night services and more Conservative-style Saturday morning services, though today it is only affiliated with the Reform movement.
Today such mergers are no longer surprising, says Rabbi David Fine, director of consulting and transition management for the Union for Reform Judaism.
“Today we don’t think twice about it,” Fine said. “We have a much greater appreciation for each other and understanding of each other.”
The reasons for merging have changed, according to Fine. “In the ’60s, synagogues often saw each other as competition. Mergers happened because of bad finances or because everyone had moved away,” he said. “Coming together with another congregation today is a mark of strength and success and not of weakness … rather than looking at their neighboring congregation as competition, they’re seeing it as an ally, where collaboration can allow them to enact their values and achieve their vision.”
As for the denomination, the new congregation will be affiliated jointly with both the Conservative and Reform movements — just as BIJ was for decades after the 1969 merger.
So far, it’s a harmonious relationship, due in large part to their preexisting bonds through the Southside Jewish Collaborative. A law firm has been hired to work out legal details, and things are moving along, though much is left to be decided, including the name and the location.
At a recent joint Friday night Shabbat service held over Zoom, the only mention of the merger was a reminder for attendees to go online and take a survey on the service’s blend of BIJ and B’nai Emunah styles.
Speaking from experience, Segol reflected on the new merger. “I’ve had a long, satisfying history with Temple Judea and then Beth Israel Judea. My daughter was married there, my kids were all bar mitzvahed there, my wife’s funeral was there,” Segol said. “I think the future will be bright and the two congregations will come together and thrive.”