A decade ago, Temple Sinai, of Lawrence, and Temple Emanu-El, of Lynbrook, merged to form Temple Am Echad — which translates to “Temple of One People” — but the undertaking of combining the faiths was not easy.
Temple Sinai President Arliene Reich recalled that as synagogues across Long Island began merging for financial reasons in 2004, she decided she wanted to get ahead of the curve. So she called Temple Emanu-El President Andy Trevors in Lynbrook, who agreed that the congregations would be stronger together than either one would be standing alone.
It was up to them to persuade their synagogues’ respective boards of directors that merging would be mutually beneficial, and would keep Reform Judaism flourishing on Nassau County’s South Shore. “Together we made people realize we needed to do this,” Reich recounted.
But what followed was a lengthy and arduous process. The two synagogue presidents wanted congregation members to be comfortable at the new synagogue in Lynbrook — a renamed Temple Emanu-El — and formed a merger committee comprising 110 congregants from both synagogues who discussed their respective traditions.
“We thought it was a huge undertaking, but a necessary one,” Trevors said. The merger committee created subcommittees, he said, which “really covered all aspects of temple life.”
Temple Emanu-El, at 1 Saperstein Plaza, was founded in 1920 by residents who wanted to provide Jewish education to area children. Temple Sinai was founded in 1951 as a 20-family offshoot of another area synagogue. Its founders acquired a building, and established a religious school soon afterward.
Once congregants agreed on which traditions to keep from the two synagogues, they worked together to create a new constitution for Temple Emanu-El, where the new congregation would be based, and to get state approval for the merger in July 2009. Then they moved the stained glass that adorned Temple Sinai to the lobby of Temple Emanu-El, walked the torahs from Temple Sinai to Temple Emanu-El and held a contest to rename the newly merged synagogue. Congregants eventually settled on Temple Am Echad, which underscored the two synagogues’ unity.
Now, 10 years later, the synagogue is more energetic than ever, Trevors said, and Reich said that it has lived up to its name. “We really have become one people,” she said.
The spiritual leader of Temple Am Echad is Rabbi Sandra Bellush, who became the senior rabbi in 2015. She was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, raised in Manhattan, and studied at Hebrew Union College, a reform Judaic school with campuses in Cincinnati, Los Angeles, New York and Jerusalem. She spent a year in Israel before returning to the U.S. to study in Cincinnati.
After being ordained in 2011, Bellush moved to El Paso, Texas, where she became associate rabbi of Temple Mount Sinai there. She taught lessons on the Torah to students of all ages, facilitated and trained care teams to engage the elderly and homebound in temple life, and initiated a Baby Boomers group to increase participation in social action projects. She also initiated a partnership with a local food pantry, which raised nearly $100,000 over a three-year period.
Before becoming a rabbi, Bellush graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in civil engineering, and worked as an investment banker and a management consultant.
Fielding questions from the Herald in 2015, Bellush said she was interested in joining Temple Am Echad because of its sense of community. “I was attracted to Temple Am Echad because of its high level of volunteerism,” she said. “There are a lot of different age groups, which is sometimes uncommon. I’m really looking forward to being part of a community that worships and celebrates together, that has intergenerational bonding and is doing more to strengthen and build those bridges.”
A decade after the merger, the temple hosts Shabbat services every Friday at 8 p.m., as well as a Family Shabbat service at 7 p.m. on the first Friday of each month. There are bar and bat mitzvah services on Saturdays at 10 a.m., and when there are none scheduled, Torah study with Bellush begins at 9:30 a.m. in the facility’s boardroom.
To celebrate the anniversary of the merger, Reich and Trevors are co-chairing a 10th anniversary committee, and are planning a variety of special activities throughout the rest of the year, including re-walking the torahs from Temple Sinai’s former location to Temple Am Echad. The celebration is expected to start after the Labor Day weekend.