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Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Temple Turmoil: Upset Congregants Take to the Web

By James Lomuscio Image
Rabbi Robert Orkand: one of five Temple Israel employees departing. Contributed photo

Upset by sweeping personnel changes announced last week, congregants at Westport’s Temple Israel, have launched their own website,

The site already has 12 pages of letters that range from expressing shock to asking the Board of Trustees to reconsider to questioning their future membership.

Last week, Diana Muller, president of the executive committee, announced the departures of Senior Rabbi Robert Orkand, Associate Rabbi Alysa Mendelson Graf, two cantors and the temple’s executive director over the next six to 18 months. (See WestpotNow Jan, 26, 2012)

Orkand stressed last week that it was “not a shakeup,” and that his decision to retire after 30 years from the 850-member congregation “necessitated other decisions.”

“And those other decisions were based on some inevitable retirements and thinking about what our future should look like,”said Orkand, scheduled to retire in June 2013.

Regarding Mendelson’s Graf’s departure, Muller said in her letter that it is a common practice for associate rabbis “to move on to senior positions with other congregations” when a senior rabbi leaves. Mendelson Graf has been at Temple Israel for the past eight years.

In addition, Cantor Richard Silverman will retire as Senior Cantor, effective June 30, 2012 and become cantor emeritus. The board concluded that Assistant Cantor Scott Harris should also leave at that time since ” the time has come when our membership can responsibly support only one full-time cantor,” said Muller.

Sandy Silverstein, executive director for the past 11 years, is also scheduled to leave the end of June.

“While no one sought this confluence of events, everyone has worked and planned diligently to ensure that the strength of our congregation remains undiminished, that the continuity of our institutional heritage is preserved and that Temple Israel will be an exemplar of the vitality, warmth and innovation of contemporary, Reform Jewish life,” Muller said while acknowledging that the road ahead would be “bumpy.”

Letters posted on, however, took a different view, questioning the board’s wisdom.

“It feels like all the cornerstones have been pulled out and the building has no foundation,” Francoise Jaffe stated in an open letter to Orkand. “Even if some of you stay in place for 18 months, the impending departures will greatly affect the feeling of continuity that allows for the sense of safety we look for in a religious community.

“I have also always been a great fan of Rabbi Mendelson,” Jaffe continued. “I have delighted in seeing her grow over the years into her role and assume more and more responsibilities and leadership. I am disappointed that she will not be given the opportunity to lead us in the future.”

Jaffe concluded the changes are “a recipe for turmoil.”

In a letter to the board, Amy Berkin, a self-described lifelong member of Temple Israel, which first opened in 1958, expressed shock, calling the decision “dictatorial,” since the board did not elicit input from congregants.

“I continue to be bewildered at how such a sweeping decision could have been made without the consideration of the congregation which defines our community,” she wrote. “It is hard for me to believe that both Rabbi Orkand and Cantor Silverman would have thought it sound to leave their congregation at the same time.”

Russell Wayne, a 24-year congregant, called the planned changes “a mess on our hands.”

“We are soon to be left with little more than a building,” he wrote. “The lives that brought our congregation together will be gone.”

Wayne said that fiscal woes over the past few years would have been far worse “but for the expertise that Sandy Silverstein has brought to the position of Executive Director.”

He also criticized Muller’s letter which states the changes “reflect the passage of time.

“If these developments were voluntary, I’m an astronaut,” he said.

Congregant Matthew Bromberg was a lot harsher, calling it “one of the most complete and systemic failures of transition planning I have every witnessed.”

Sue Kirschenbaum said the sudden changes presented a “feeling of detachment for my family.”

“We plan on staying at the temple until Rabbi Orkand steps down, and then we will revisit our future membership plans at that time,” she wrote.

In response, Muller has scheduled meetings with congregants, the first general information one set for Thursday, Feb. 2 at 7 p.m.

“So that we make the dialogues meaningful and that we can address everyone’s questions, I would like to limit the meetings to 50 people per session,” she said. “We will have as many meetings as we need to accommodate anyone who would like to come.”

Those planning to attend should call 203-227-1293, she said.


Posted 02/01/12 at 10:30 AM


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