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Reform clergy-sharing agreement to end in June
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Reform clergy-sharing agreement to end in June

Five months after entering into a unique rabbi-sharing agreement, two Reform congregations in Morris County are dissolving the plan.

In late November, board members at Temple Shalom in Succasunna voted to abandon the partnership with Temple Beth Am in Parsippany at the end of June, saying the plan “didn’t suit our needs,” according to Andrew Mensch, executive vice president of Temple
Shalom.

He declined to elaborate on what those “specific needs” were, but told NJJN “the synergy was not like what we expected it to be. So, for the benefit of our temple, this is the decision
we made.”

“We would have liked it to work out but sometimes something in theory versus something in practice are not the same. That’s all,” he said. Mensch declined to reveal details on the board’s vote. 

Beth Am’s board members did not vote on whether to dissolve the partnership, and that disappointed Marsha Geltman of Randolph, acting president of the congregation.

“I think it was a wonderful, creative idea,” she told NJJN. “I am disappointed that we didn’t have the opportunity to tweak it so we could make it work. The decision was made before we all sat and looked at it and tried to figure out how to make it work.”

Geltman estimated that her congregation was “probably split 50-50” on whether to continue the rabbi-sharing arrangement, “but some of the reasons they were against it could have been fixed if we had given it some time.” 

She said the leading issue was that some members of both temples didn’t like the idea of “dark Fridays,” when one temple was closed while the other hosted services for a combined congregation. 

As a member of both congregations and a past president of Temple Shalom, she said she “didn’t sense that the leadership at Temple Shalom was interested in trying to make it work.”

The synagogue’s arrangement with Beth Am was the brainchild of Rabbi Steven Mills, who died suddenly on July 2, one day after the sharing agreement went into effect. 

His passing threw the 190 families who belong to Beth Am and the 280 families at Temple Shalom into a tailspin. A planned celebration of the innovative plan turned into a time of mourning. Rabbi Inna Serebro-Litvak — who would have shared the two pulpits with Mills — served solo as religious leader of both congregations. 

In time for the recent High Holy Days, Estelle Mills — Steven’s widow and also a Reform rabbi — was named interim rabbi for one year and she assumed duties at both congregations.

She said the late November vote occurred during prime job-seeking time for rabbis. “I think both congregations wanted to make sure they got the highest-caliber rabbis they could for their future,” she told NJJN a few days after the Temple Shalom board vote. “I think what they were thinking is they would be more attractive being separate congregations. It is not my place to judge.” 

And yet, because she lived with her late husband during the time he crafted the pioneering clergy-sharing plan, Estelle Mills said she “truly believe(s) if he had been at the helm it would have been very successful and cutting edge.”

Geltman of Beth Am compared her life as a synagogue leader to “a ride on a roller coaster.”

“This summer, everything was in turmoil. Then we had the High Holy Days, and we didn’t have any chance at all to evaluate it until the middle of October. And then we were under pressure, because we had to go forward and look for clergy.”

Geltman said one difficulty in finding rabbis willing to participate in the arrangement is the fact that both are “very diverse congregations” in terms of ages and interests.

While older congregants at both shuls are interested in attending prayer services and classes in Jewish studies, she said younger families want somebody “who is going to relate to the children” and help prepare them for bat and bar mitzvahs. 

“It is difficult to find one clergy who will meet the needs of everybody,” Geltman said.

Although Rabbi Mills is contractually obligated to leave at the end of June, it is not clear what the future holds for Serebro-Litvak, who declined to be interviewed for this story.

The clergy-sharing will continue until June 30 “and hopefully we will find rabbis for both congregations,” Geltman said. But, she added wistfully, “I wish we could have been a model for other congregations.”

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