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Two local Reform Jewish congregations become one: Emanu-El

Two liberal Reform Jewish congregations, Ner Tamid and Beth Haverim, officially merged Nov. 2 to form Congregation Emanu-El, which means “God is with us.”

“I couldn’t be happier,” said Mary Singer, formerly president of Ner Tamid and now co-president of Emanu-El with Fran Snavely, who was formerly president of Beth Haverim.  “We realized we have more in common than different, so we became one congregation.”

Emanu-El formed
Ner Tamid and Beth Haverim become Congregation Emanu-El

The two congregations initially formed out of one informal group that met in homes and then at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 4340 Ft. Wright Dr.

In 2001, Beth Haverim formed and affiliated with the Union of Reform Judaism. They gathered twice monthly at the Unitarian church. Congregation Ner Tamid formed in 2002 and met at Manito United Methodist Church.

Both congregations had about 30 members each, so the new congregation will have more than 60 members.

“Being together means we will have more energy, more people, more ideas, a larger budget, the ability to offer religious education for our children, be able to worship together as one large congregation and be able to do more social action,” Mary and Fran said.

Mary added that it means they will be able to leave something future generations can build on.

“We both were doing the same things,” Fran said.  “This means we can do more tikkun olam—healing the world.”

The name builds on the past, because Temple Emanu-El was the name of a former liberal Reform Jewish community in Spokane that merged with Orthodox Temple Keneseth Israel to form Temple Beth Shalom. In 1965 and 1966, that merged congregation met at the Unitarian Universalist Church until the building was completed at 1322 E. 30th.

“The merger of Ner Tamid and Beth Haverim was a simple name change, combining bylaws, boards and officers until next June when a new board will be elected.  It’s like a family reunion,” said Mary, a retired nurse who has been in Spokane since the 1970s.

Fran, a retired nurse midwife who moved to Coeur d’Alene from Southern California three years ago, said the bylaws were similar. 

She and Mary had met for coffee informally over the past year and decided it was time to heed the encouragement of the Union of Reform Jews to be one congregation.

“We are still a small congregation, which I think gives more room for creativity,” she said.

The congregations had crossover members, attended each other’s services and celebrated Passover Seder and Channukah parties together.

“We realized it was silly to maintain two institutions,” said Mary.  “Out of genuine caring and warmth, we wanted to be one strong congregation.”

The one congregation, which draws people from Spirit Lake, Colbert, Coeur d’Alene, Cheney and even California, will continue to hold services twice a month and for holidays.  One service a month is led by a student rabbi, Jessy Gross, and the other led by lay leaders.

Members are also involved with services and celebrations at Temple Beth Shalom, including helping with the annual Kosher Dinner.

“We are one big extended family,” Mary said.  “While Reform Judaism is more religiously and socially liberal, there’s crossover on that, too.”

The new congregation held its first joint service on Friday, Nov. 7, and held its first board meeting on Sunday, Nov. 16. 

In email discussion since the merger, Mary said one member asked, “Why do we call it a congregation, because the old Emanu-El was a temple.”

Another member replied:  “A temple is a building, which may or may not have permanence, as history shows.  A congregation is the people and the people endure.”

Mary then shared a bit of that history:

Congregation Emanu-El completed building and dedicated the first Reform Jewish synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, in the state on Sept. 14, 1892, four days before Seattle’s Ohaveth Sholum was dedicated on Sept. 18, 1892. 

The city’s first Jewish person, Simon Berg, settled in the Spokane area in 1879 and built a store.  Other Jewish merchants came and the first Jewish services were held in a home in 1885, and in 1890 they formed Congregation Emanu-El.  In the 1920s, a new temple was built at 8th and Walnut. There is a plaque in the sidewalk at Third and Madison where the original building once stood.

The Orthodox Keneseth Israel Congregation formed in 1901 and finished building a synagogue in 1909 at Fourth and Adams.  By 1926, it joined the Conservative movement.

Plymouth Congregational Church bought Temple Emanu-El in 1966, after Temple Emanu-El merged with Temple Keneseth Israel and formed Temple Beth Shalom.

For information, call 835-5050 or visit www.spokaneemanu-el.org