On Yom Kippur this year, the few remaining families of the 161-year old congregation of B’nai El in St. Louis, Missouri, entered the large sanctuary of Shaare Emeth. All of the members representing Shaare Emeth’s 1600-plus households simultaneously rose to their feet in honor of the Torahs held in the arms of B’nai El’s remaining few members. They, along with the Torahs, were being welcomed into their new spiritual home.
For those who may not know, B’nai El (established circa 1852) was the first Jewish congregation to build its sacred dwelling west of the Mississippi River. After a brief period of existence as an Orthodox congregation, B’nai El joined the Reform Movement, and in 1874 was among the founding congregations of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now known as the Union for Reform Judaism.
B’nai El was also my hometown congregation.
I say, “was,” because – as of this year – B’nai El closed its doors, due to a great decline in membership over recent decades. Facing this moment has not been easy for any of us. Yet, thanks to a dedicated board and a compassionate interim rabbi, the congregation of B’nai El made thoughtful, though difficult, decisions that brought great honor to its history, ensuring its lasting legacy.
These brave acts included offering me (as a son of the congregation) the complete contents of their Sisterhood Judaica Shop. As their Sisterhood president Maryellen McSweeny told me: “Just because we are closing doesn’t mean that we can’t still make a difference, an impact in the Jewish world. Please take these items to impact your work with small congregations in the South.”
In B’nai El’s name, I have done just that. During a Bat Mitzvah service in the Mississippi Delta, a brilliant young lady received a beautiful B’nai El tallit. Every time she wraps herself in it, the generations of B’nai El embrace her. During a funeral in Alabama, the mourners received a special yahrzeit candle holder. Every year they light it, memories of both their loved one and the congregation will be illuminated.
And, during a Shabbat service with the small college town congregation of Am Shalom in Bowling Green, Kentucky, I noticed that the Torah was without a yad for reading. Upon my return to the office, I went to the ISJL closet filled with B’nai El’s generous donations. From it, I pulled out a yad. I sent it to Am Shalom with the message, “May it continue to point y’all forward with God’s loving touch in this coming year.”
Am Shalom’s president, Laura Jacobs, wrote the following to Maryellen McSweeny in response:
We very much appreciate you sending us your yad. We are a very small congregation of about 15 families. We meet about one time per month for social and religious events. We are lay-led and so appreciate Rabbi Klaven and all he brings to our small congregation. As you know, he is a special person, making Judaism come alive for the young and old. We are blessed he chose to share your yad with us. Know that we will put it to good use. I’ve attached the pictures of some of our members on Yom Kippur with the yad on our Torah. L’shana tovah to you!
What I have come to appreciate even more through connecting some of the remaining items from my hometown congregation of B’nai El to other Jewish communities in need is that our story does not end when we find a place to call home. Rather, just as it was for our ancestors, coming home marks the next chapter of our development, as we continue to honor our history and live our legacy.
Image above: B’nai El’s Yad brings new blessings to its new home at Am Shalom.
Today’s guest post comes from Rabbi Hank Bamberger of Utica, New York, who spent some time traveling in the South this summer as part of the ISJL’s Rabbis on the Road program. A version of this piece first appeared in the newsletter of the National Association of Retired Reform Rabbis, and is shared here with permission.
“You’re going WHERE in July?”
We couldn’t blame people for reacting that way. The answer was that my wife Sheila and I would be visiting four small congregations in four southern states – Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas – with a side trip to the URJ’s Jacobs Camp in Utica, MS, all this under the auspices of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life – and all during the summer.
My friend and colleague Rabbi David Klein, who had served as the rabbi in Monroe, LA, sent us an email assuring us that it would only be hot outside. No one else was that encouraging.
In spite of the heat concerns, we headed South – and we enjoyed ourselves thoroughly. Wherever we went, we were welcomed with true Southern hospitality. Each of the two Erev Shabbat services I conducted drew about a dozen and a half people. That may not sound like many, but percentage wise, it’s a lot. Consider this: Congregation Meir Chaim in McGehee, AR, has only seven families on its membership list!
Adult education in three congregations produced slightly lower numbers (!) but great enthusiasm. Talk at meals ranged from dealing with congregational matters to local and regional Jewish history to, inevitably, mutual acquaintances.
We even made some time to be tourists. The Clinton Library in Little Rock is worth a trip in itself, and if you go, the Little Rock Zoo is very nice as well. Of course, we saw lots of countryside. In nine days, we logged just over 1,500 miles of driving.
To top everything else off, the weather was mild (for summer in the South). Since our trip occurred during the terrible heat wave in the Northeast, it was hotter in Utica, NY than in Utica, MS. Go figure!
In short, we felt that we had made a contribution to those small congregations which work so hard to survive. A great way to spend our summer vacation, and I encourage other clergy interested in the Rabbis on the Road program to contact Rabbi Marshal Klaven at the ISJL.
Early on in the academic year (and the Jewish New Year!), I thought it would be a poignant time to remind you of why we engage in religious education.
I know what some of you are thinking: “The Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah, of course!”
Sorry, talmidim (students), but the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is just one step along life’s long journey of knowing and growing. Nonetheless, sometimes it is this step that not only confirms the road already taken but affirms the one still left to travel.
That was certainly the case for the recent Bar Mitzvah of Elijah Schulman. The ceremony took place last month, August 2013, at the nearly 150-year old congregation of Mishkan Israel in Selma, Alabama. Selma is where Abraham Joshua Heschel artfully articulated the indelible words: “While marching in Selma with Dr. King, my feet were praying.”
Elijah did not grow up praying in Selma, but his great-great grandparents, Max and Hattie Erdreich, did. Elijah and his family now live in Bethesda, Maryland. He chose Selma for his celebration because becoming a Bar Mitzvah is a confirmation of continuing along a path established by those who came before you, and an affirmation to help shape the path for those who will come after you.
When the day arrived, I was with Elijah and his family in the social hall of the temple before the service. I asked if he was ready to sign his Bar Mitzvah certificate, pledging his life-long commitment to study, prayer, and acts of loving kindness. As Elijah’s pen took aim, his father, Andrew, interjected before it could hit its mark.
“What if he doesn’t agree? What if he won’t sign? Will he not be considered a Bar Mitzvah?”
I’d never been asked that question before, as – prior to this moment – the signing the Bar or Bat Mitzvah certificate had seemed merely functionary, a formality of the overall moment. So, I sat there… quiet… thinking. And, then, I answered:
“Sorry. No. I will not consider him a Bar Mitzvah, even with his Hebrew training. Because, being Jewish is more than knowing how to read Hebrew and lead a congregation in prayer. It takes a commitment to fill those words with meaning through our actions. So, if he chooses to not sign, he’ll still lead the service. He’s earned that right. But to truly be considered a son of the commandments, one has to be committed to living the words, not just reciting them.”
After a deep breath, as if inhaling the very weight of those words, Elijah signed. I don’t think there was ever a moment of hesitation; after all, in addition to preparing for the actual ceremony celebrating his Bar Mitzvah milestone, Elijah has already been fulfilling his commitment to the Jewish people through his actions.
The Mayor of Selma, George Patrick Evans, read a city resolution to Elijah during the service: “Elijah Schulman has already raised over $6,000 towards the preservation of this Selma Temple, and brought nationwide awareness of our great city… On behalf of Selma’s citizens, I present you with the Key to the City. May you always feel you’ve got a home here.”
That, my beloved talmidim, is the real reason you engage in religious education: not solely to become a Bar/Bat Mitzvah, but to ensure a sense of belonging and responsibility to your Jewish community. For, in the near future, the keys of this home will quite literally be in your hands. The simple prayer of those who came before you is that you are willing to steer our congregations, our communities, and our world towards better and brighter things. We have great confidence you can and will do just that.
May God bless your educational journey!
Rabbi Marshal Klaven
PS – If you would like to continue to help Elijah and the Mishkan Israel congregation in the restoration efforts of their historic building, you can email Mishkan Israel’s President, Ronnie Leet.