Har Sinai synagogue calls off proposed merger with Oheb Shalom

The board of the Har Sinai synagogue has called off a merger with another historic congregation, leaders confirmed last week.

The news was made public to the congregation in the Har Sinai newsletter in July.

“I found it very disappointing,” said Anne Levin Berman, president of Har Sinai Congregation. She said the synagogue’s board of trustees voted to terminate a memorandum of understanding with Oheb Shalom, which effectively ended months of talks toward merging the congregations.

Berman had been an active supporter of the move to merge with Oheb Shalom, as The Baltimore Sun reported last year. But ultimately, she said, she was outvoted. “A synagogue is a democracy,” she said, and “I’m not the dictator.”

The merger talks came against a backdrop of declining membership at both congregations, similar to a decline seen at many non-Orthodox synagogues nationwide — and a drop in religiosity in the United States in general.

In the mix are allegations against Rabbi Steven Fink of Oheb Shalom, according to reports in JMore and Jewish Living this past May. Fink was suspended with pay after the allegations, a decision many congregants supported in an open letter posted online. Har Sinai had declared a 30-day pause in merger talks after the allegations became public.

Fink was not charged with any crime in Maryland, according to online records. Reached by The Sun, he declined to comment.

Rabbi Linda Joseph of Har Sinai said there was no single reason that the board voted to terminate the merger talks, citing the old adage that, “Where there are many Jews, there are many opinions.”

Berman rebutted the idea that the allegations against Fink had anything to do with the board’s decision, saying Fink would not be returning to Oheb Shalom.

But Amy Rotenberg, a spokeswoman for Oheb Shalom, said “nobody knows” whether Fink will be returning to the synagogue. The congregation is awaiting a decision by the Central Conference of American Rabbis on the matter.

Last week, Berman said she’s concerned for the future of Har Sinai, which was founded in 1842 as Baltimore’s first Reform congregation. “It would be a shame to lose that history,” she said. “I fear that this could happen.”

Oheb Shalom’s roots date back more than a century, too. It was founded by German immigrants 11 years after Har Sinai as a compromise between that synagogue’s Reform Judaism and the Orthodoxy of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.

Both synagogues took part in social justice movements, with leaders marching alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement.

Rotenberg, the Oheb Shalom spokeswoman, said while the synagogue was happy to have explored the possibility of a merger, they would now be focusing on the health and prosperity of their own congregation.

Similarly, Joseph said Har Sinai’s board is looking at ways to move forward as a smaller entity.

“It’s a pivotal moment in our congregation’s history, but it doesn’t spell the end of our congregation,” Joseph said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jonathan Pitts contributed to this article.

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