Congregation Adath Jeshurun and Beth Sholom Congregation, two Conservative synagogues a mile apart from one another in Elkins Park, have decided to merge their two religious schools next fall.
It’s the latest collaboration between the two congregations, which were once seen as giants in the Philadelphia Jewish community and have experienced a substantial decline in membership in recent years. They have already combined their youth groups and Hebrew high schools. The synagogues also have for years been running a joint Sunday evening minyan and Selichot services.
There has been plenty of chatter about a potential merger that has intensified with the impending retirement of Adath Jeshurun’s rabbi, Seymour Rosenbloom, and the retirement in 2011 of Beth Sholom’s Cantor David F. Tilman, who has not yet been replaced.
But leaders of both congregations insist that, rumors aside, a merger isn’t happening, and Adath Jeshurun and Beth Sholom are busy searching, respectively, for a new rabbi and a new cantor.
Shelley Hittinger, president of Beth Sholom, said both congregations are “looking at forms of collaboration and preserving our individual identities.”
Anne Fassler, Adath Jeshurun’s president, said her synagogue is “focusing on looking for a rabbi. I hear the rumors, too. I don’t know what to say about that.”
Both Beth Sholom and Adath Jeshurun relocated from Philadelphia to the suburbs in the late 1950s. The construction of such large edifices illustrated both the strong Jewish character of the surrounding neighborhood and the popularity of the Conservative Movement, then the dominant stream in American Judaism.
But the Old York Road corridor’s Jewish population has declined, as has affiliation with the Conservative movement.
According to Adath Jeshurun’s leaders, in the last two decades, family membership has gone from roughly 900 families to about 600.
In 2000, when Rabbi Aaron Landes retired, membership at Beth Sholom exceeded 1,300 families. While synagogue leaders declined to give the current numbers, a source with knowledge of the community said there are now about 700 member families.
Rosenbloom, who is retiring in June, said he doesn’t know “if the future is going to hold a merger of the two congregations. I don’t anticipate anything happening in the near term. That is something that the leadership is going to determine over the course of time.”
So far, officials at both congregations said, they are thrilled with how the merged youth groups and Hebrew high schools have turned out. Currently, both congregations are working closely with staff at the Jewish Learning Venture to create a new, cutting-edge Hebrew elementary program.
Planning for the Adath Jeshurun/ Beth Sholom Hebrew school is in the very early stages and it is not yet clear who will run it or where classes will be located. At the merged high school, classes alternate between the synagogues’ two buildings.
“We are going through a deliberative process of studying best practices and new models around the country to try to create the best educational experience for our teens,” said Rabbi Andrea Merrow of Beth Sholom.
Landes, who led the congregation from 1964 to 2000 and now holds the title of rabbi emeritus, helped grow Beth Sholom’s Hebrew school and high school programs. He said he’s not shedding tears over the school merger, as long as high educational standards are maintained.
“I’m accepting of population changes and I am accepting of the need for combining schools,” he said, adding that he prefers the idea of one great school with a critical mass of students to two struggling schools.