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Temple Emanuel looks to its future

The St. Louis Jewish community followed the events last spring as Temple Emanuel grappled with its future: merge with Temple Israel, merge with a smaller congregation or stay independent. The congregation overwhelmingly decided to stay independent and the entire process has reinvigorated the membership in many different ways.

"People came out of the woodwork to participate in the discussions and be part of the decision making process," said Rabbi Emeritus/Senior Scholar, Rabbi Joseph R. Rosenbloom.

Rosenbloom, who had served as the congregation's rabbi for more than 40 years, deliberately stayed out of the merger discussions.

"I told the congregation I would not take a stand pro or con, it is an issue for the membership -- not the retired rabbi," Rosenbloom said.

"Attendance is up at services, programs and study sessions," Rosenbloom added. "Our religious school numbers are up. I am also in the process of resurrecting lots of classes."

Old members have returned and new families have joined the congregation since the turmoil last spring. Rosenbloom, who retired in 2003, agreed to serve as interim Senior Rabbi after the resignation of Rabbi Joshua Taub.

Current Board President David Sherman said he became more actively involved in the congregation as a result of the events surrounding the merger talks. He learned a lot in the process: especially that it was about the mission, not a building.

"I was confirmed at the congregation and a board member, but not very active," Sherman said. "When I thought about this congregation ceasing to exist, it energized me and my involvement. I realized how much I treasure this institution and the community."

Conversations about the future of the congregation had started as part of its long-range planning process. Though money dominated many of the discussions, it was not the cause of the congregation's merger talks.

"We own our building and land and we have an endowment," Sherman said. "We don't have any urgent projects. Yes, we do have financial issues like all congregations, but we are not in dire straits and have no reason to do anything rash."

Instead, the membership refocused on what brought them together in the first place 50 years ago: the desire for a warm, intimate, dignified, community in which members really care about one another.

"I feel strongly there is a real demand for small-to-medium size Reform congregations in St. Louis," Sherman said. "I don't think we sold ourselves well in the past. Steve Strauss is working on membership and reenergizing it."

A revitalized spirit, warmth and energy have returned as members reinvest in the congregational community that means so much to them. They have moved forward together concentrating on their core values and what they treasure, including the ability for each member to have a relationship with the rabbi, volunteering, devotion to learning and valuing each member.

The latter is reflected in one of the unique aspects of their building: nothing is named for anyone.

"We do not allow naming because the Temple belongs to everyone and no one is favored because of their financial status," Rosenbloom said.

Sherman agreed in the importance of that policy.

"We want everyone to feel they are part of the community we've built," Sherman said. "There is no sense of hierarchy."

More than 100 people attended the rededication of the synagogue sanctuary, foyer and social hall which was accomplished through private funding. There is a new audio/video set-up in the social hall and new flooring in the foyer. The sanctuary was refurbished with new pews, carpeting and a sound system - all staying faithful to the vision of architect William Bernoudy. Member Mike Wilson refinished all the wood and made all new hand rails for the bimah. Member Mike Szymkowicz supervised the renovation process in his spare time and served as the general contractor saving the congregation a lot of money, said Sherman.

"Everything has a nice fresh look and feel," Sherman said. "It's a nice lift for our members."

The congregation has maintained a popular, ongoing Sunday discussion series focusing on timely topics and speakers drawn from its membership and from the broader community.

The next step in the revitalization process is the search for a new rabbi. Sherman said congregants are making sure the search committee and process are completely open and very inclusive of all constituencies to ensure everyone is heard.

"We are fortunate to have Rabbi Rosenbloom," Sherman said. "His commitment to the congregation gives us the time and flexibility to do what is right."