A group of Congregation Beth-El members are dissenting from a decision made by the synagogue’s executive to associate with Shaare Zion Congregation, an agreement that has now been formalized.
The goal of the group is to preserve Beth-El as a fully independent congregation in its own space with its own, at least part-time, clergy and staff, said Allen Feldman, a past president of Beth-El and a member since 1981.
The dissident group has been in talks with Congregation Beth Ora, an Orthodox shul in the St-Laurent borough.
Faced with a diminished membership and mounting costs, the executive of the 65-year-old Conservative congregation voted this summer to sell the synagogue in the Town of Mount Royal (TMR), which it could no longer afford. The executive also approved entering a two-year trial relationship with Shaare Zion, a Conservative congregation with about 900 members.
The last services in the Beth-El synagogue were held on Yom Kippur.
The congregation continues as an independent entity with its own board at Shaare Zion, but members attend the same services and turn to its clergy, according to the terms of the arrangement, which were made public by Morton Mendelson, Beth-El’s president.
After two years, the plan is to ask the members of both shuls to vote on a merger, which Feldman points out would involve figuring out what to do with Beth-El’s assets, which he estimates is worth several million dollars.
Feldman said there is adequate space in Beth Ora’s building for Beth-El to set up, specifically, an area on its lower level that can seat 600. Beth Ora has also experienced a decline in membership over the years.
Feldman believes a minimum of 100 Beth-El members are needed to make the arrangement feasible.
An eventual merger would be out of the question because of the denominational differences between the two congregations. Beth-El is not only Conservative, but fully egalitarian, with women fulfilling all roles, including being counted in a minyan.
Such a co-habitation arrangement has precedence in the Montreal area. The Orthodox Young Israel Synagogue, which sold its building due to declining membership, has been sharing space with the Conservative Shaar Shalom synagogue for a couple of years.
The group believes finding a way to keep Beth-El intact reflects the wishes of a majority of the membership, which sits at about 225. Yet this is only a supposition, Feldman acknowledged.
The group has not been able to contact all the members, as it does not have access to the membership list, he said. Moreover, the number of active members is considerably less than those on paper.
The Beth Ora executive, as well as its spiritual leader, Rabbi Anthony Knopf, are in favour of the proposal, at least in principle, the congregation’s president, Howard Yancovitch, confirmed to The CJN.
The main objection to the Shaare Zion relationship is that the Beth-El members will be “absorbed” into the much larger congregation, making a merger inevitable, said Feldman.
He has no objection to Shaare Zion as such, noting that it is well run, has fine programming and an admirable clergy.
Since the synagogue closed, daily services have continued at a member’s home in TMR, he said.
In its latter stage, Feldman was a member of what was called the Beth-El 2.0 committee, which was mandated with studying alternatives to Shaare Zion, while the congregation’s future was still under discussion. This began in earnest in the spring of 2018, he said, and Beth Ora was raised as a possibility by the committee.
While Beth Ora and Beth-El would remain separate, Feldman foresees “a lot of synergies,” such as joint festival celebrations, or perhaps completing a minyan when needed.
The dissident group, of course, needs funds to make any arrangement with Beth Ora a reality, and it will seek a share of Beth-El’s assets, Feldman said, both monetary and physical, such as pews and a sefer Torah.
Although the Beth-El executive characterizes the next two years as a trial period, Feldman feels it has been putting up “roadblocks” to the pursuit of alternative arrangements. He cites being unable to get the membership list and its refusal to lend his group a sefer Torah for the current daily services.
The Beth Ora building has several practical advantages, he added, including the fact that it’s a 12-minute drive from where Beth-El was and has its own parking lot.
Shaare Zion does not offer “family seating” at the High Holidays, meaning a single fee for immediate relatives, as was the case at Beth-El, he said.
He also doubts there would be room for all the Beth-El members at the High Holidays in Shaare Zion’s main sanctuary, meaning some would have to attend auxiliary services downstairs.