This past weekend some friends of mine, who moved here from Columbus, Ohio, showed me last month's issue of the New Standard, Columbus' new Jewish newspaper. There was a fascinating article about Agudas Achim, a heretofore OU-affiliated synagogue which was undergoing something of an identity crisis, and deciding whether to remain in the OU or join the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. (The article is not posted online, unfortunately.)
The reason I find it interesting is that it raises some questions about the consistency of the Orthodox Union in enforcing their bylaws.
Here's the story, combining what I read in the paper with commentary from my friends who are from Columbus:
Since moving into their current building in 1951, Agudas Achim has had three seating sections in the main sanctuary: women-only, men-only, and a "mixed" section in the middle. All these years the synagogue was part of the Orthodox Union. Well, one of the synagogue's rabbis inspired a large portion of the congregants to greater observance, and a "mechitza minyan" was created in the basement. A few years ago, the basement minyan split off and created the Main Street Synagogue, which has completely separate seating. Agudas Achim liked their "neither here nor there" seating arrangement and hired an Orthodox-ordained rabbi who would allow them to keep things the way they are.
Well, lately, the OU woke up to the fact that one of their member shules has mixed seating (more about this later), and gave Agudas Achim an ultimatum: If you want to remain in the OU, you have to have completely separate seating.
The thrust of the New Standard article was that reps from both the OU and the USCJ had visited Agudas Achim to address the congregants about what each organization expects from their member synagogues, the stance of their respective movements about various social and congregational issues, etc. The congregation was then going to vote about whether to remain under Orthodox auspices and get rid of their mixed section, or join the USCJ. The vote was scheduled for yesterday.
One of the factors here is that Columbus already has several Orthodox and Reform places of worship, but only one Conservative synagogue.
My friend tells me that she called someone in Columbus yesterday who told her that Agudas Achim had voted to become Conservative.
What interests me in all of this is why the OU allowed Agudas Achim to maintain their membership for all these years, ignoring the shule's mixed-seating section. My Columbus connections tell me that a member of the highly wealthy, highly philanthropic Schottenstein family had been a member of Agudas Achim, but left to form the Main Street Synagogue. It was after he left that the OU decided to give an ultimatum to Agudas Achim.
Coincidence? I think not.