Conservative, Reform Jews share in Jericho

The torah scroll at Jericho Jewish Center is

The torah scroll at Jericho Jewish Center is unrolled during a ceremony celebrating Simchat Torah. (Oct. 5, 2012) Photo Credit: James Escher

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For years, the Jewish Congregation of Brookville lacked its own synagogue, and had to borrow space from a Protestant church for its services. As the congregation grew, even that space was starting to get too cramped.

The solution: The Reform synagogue is forming an alliance with the Jericho Jewish Center, a traditional Conservative synagogue.

"It is not a merger, it's an alliance," said Jack Cohen of the Jericho Jewish Center. "We are allowed to have our own identity and they are allowed to have their own identity, all under one roof."

While many synagogues with declining membership are trying to stay afloat by merging with synagogues of the same branch of Judaism -- Reform, Conservative or Orthodox -- the alliance in Jericho is a sign of a new but growing trend: congregations from different branches of Judaism coming together, experts say.


'Creative alliances'

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There is "much more openness to exploring creative alliances," said Adina Frydman of the UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish community and social services organization. She added that several similar partnerships have sprung up on Long Island.

The two synagogues joined forces in August when the Jewish Congregation of Brookville decided to leave its longtime but temporary home, the Brookville Reformed Church.

Bruce Cohen, a leader of the Brookville synagogue, said the Reformed Church lacked space to accommodate the synagogue's growing religion classes for children, among other issues.

The Jericho group was happy to welcome them because its own numbers have been steadily dropping, from a high of 650 families in the mid-1980s to 300 families now, Jack Cohen said.

On Friday nights, the Jericho group worships in a small sanctuary downstairs in its synagogue, while the Brookville group uses the larger upstairs sanctuary. On Saturday morning, the Jericho group has exclusive use of the upstairs because the Brookville group does not hold services then.

Leaders of the groups say the arrangement allows them to maintain their identities and differences while sharing the same building.


Practices differ

Men in the Conservative group, for instance, must always put on their yarmulke, or skullcap, before entering the sanctuary. For the Reform group, that is optional.

The Conservative group also uses little music or singing during its services, in contrast to Reform practices. The Conservative group uses more Hebrew; the Reform group allows greater use of English.

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The two groups have signed a "licensing" agreement to try the arrangement for a year. "It's like we're dating," Jack Cohen said. "We're not sure how it's going to work out."

But both sides seem happy so far. The Brookville group has long had plans to build its own synagogue, but with those plans delayed in part by zoning approvals sought from the Village of Muttontown, Bruce Cohen said the alliance might become permanent.

"It's a lot nicer going to Friday services being in a Jewish synagogue," he said.

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