Members of Congregation Beth Shalom and Agudath Israel Congregation have overwhelmingly approved the proposed amalgamation of Ottawa’s two largest Conservative congregations.
In separate congregational referendums held June 24, members of the two congregations gave their boards strong mandates to create a single amalgamated congregation by next summer.
Leaders from both congregations who spoke with the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin said they viewed the amalgamation process over the next year as an exciting opportunity to revitalize Conservative Judaism in Ottawa.
The Beth Shalom vote was 160 (84 per cent) in favour of the amalgamation and 29 (15 per cent) against. There were also two spoiled ballots.
The Agudath Israel vote was 349 (89 per cent) in favour of the amalgamation and 42 (11 per cent) against with 28 spoiled ballots.
The name of the new congregation will be chosen later with input from the membership. For the time being, it is being referred to as the “New Shul.”
A new, joint board for the New Shul will be in place by the end of the summer, and the full amalgamation will be completed by July 2016. Until the amalgamation takes effect next summer, the new board will, in fact, be a joint committee operating under the authority of the two congregations’ existing boards.
Under the terms of the proposal, the New Shul will be fully egalitarian and affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the major umbrella organization for Conservative congregations in North America.
The current clergy – Rabbi Barry Schlesinger of Agudath Israel and Cantor Daniel Benlolo of Beth Shalom – were offered extensions of their contracts to take effect with the amalgamation in 2016.
Cantor Benlolo has accepted to stay on with the New Shul. However, Rabbi Schlesinger has informed Agudath Israel officials that he will leave the congregation next summer.
Agudath Israel President Stuart McCarthy and Beth Shalom Past-President Ian Sherman (the Beth Shalom presidency is currently vacant) told the Bulletin that a search for a dynamic spiritual leader for the New Shul will commence by November.
McCarthy also said a second rabbinic position – ritual, outreach and education director – has been created at Agudath Israel with the hiring process nearing completion. He said the successful candidate will continue to serve the New Shul following the amalgamation.
Both leaders acknowledged the transition toward the New Shul will be difficult for some of their members – particularly for those with long family histories in either Beth Shalom or Agudath Israel. Both said it will be important to ensure that the important legacies of the two congregations will be respected and celebrated in the amalgamation process, and in the congregational life of the New Shul.
Sherman noted that Beth Shalom members have spent the past several years adapting to “a whole sequence of changes” – beginning with the sale of the Chapel Street synagogue building and continuing with the temporary relocation to the Jewish Community Campus and the amalgamation discussions with Agudath Israel.
The amalgamation, he said, “is an opportunity to redefine and reshape Conservative Judaism in Ottawa.”
Sherman said a priority for the New Shul will be identifying and serving the needs of young adults and young families in the community.
The New Shul will be located at Agudath Israel’s property, 1400 Coldrey Avenue, with the possibility that a new synagogue building will be built on the site, or at another location, in the future.
Beth Shalom will continue to operate at its temporary location on the Jewish Community Campus until the amalgamation.
However, the two congregations are expected to soon begin holding a joint daily minyan at Agudath Israel.