August 13 marked the 10-year anniversary of an unusual merger. On that date in 2010, members of Congregation Eilat, a Conservative synagogue, carried their Torah scrolls and their hopes to Temple Beth El of South Orange County, a Reform congregation.
Now under one roof in Aliso Viejo, Temple Beth El is a dually affiliated congregation with a variety of customs and worship choices open to all of its members.
To celebrate the milestone, the congregation had been planning a gala—until COVID-19 restrictions made that impossible. Evan Wohl, vice president of Judaism-rituals, who had been in charge of the planning, explained that he could not let the “historical, monumental event” go by without commemorating it in a special way.
With the help of his wife and his technologically savvy sons, “who were home doing nothing because of the quarantine,” Wohl created a video called “1×1=A Story of Togetherness.”
“People were missing their friends and connections,” Wohl said. “We didn’t tell them that we were making a movie. Then at 7 p.m. on August 13, everybody was asked to be watching online at the same time, followed by a Zoom after-party, to create a living legacy for the congregation.”
The video production process started with the people who were going to be part of the event if it had been “live”—the committee, the clergy, the executive director and people who had been influential in bringing the two congregations together. Everybody was interviewed on Zoom.
As Wohl explained, “We chose influential people who have been making things happen and who have been comfortable in either setting, so that people would be hearing from those who have been taking advantage of the whole picture.”
Wohl, who had been the president of Congregation Eilat when the decision was made to become part of Temple Beth El, understood that there were multiple offerings available in a larger congregation, such as the choir and the band, that were not possible in a smaller congregation.
He looks at the blended congregation as a Venn diagram with a larger and larger area where the two circles overlap. “While both Reform and Conservative services are offered, it’s nice to have choices, to explore each other’s ideas and to come together for some services,” he said.
Wohl added that there is no distinction between members in services like the annual Kol Isha Shabbat service, conducted by women. He added, “Although the service is done in the Conservative style with the Conservative prayerbook, the affiliation disappears. We get away from labels and see ourselves as Jews with different styles of worship.
“The Conservative aspect of the congregation is still there,” he said. “If everyone stays involved, it continues to survive and thrive. Very special people who are part of this congregation are comfortable with a movement that is not their own. They have adopted each other’s ideas, and each has made the other stronger.”
Wohl credits Rabbi K’vod Wieder, who is Conservative, and Cantor Natalie Miriam Young, who is Reform, for being creative and interested in creating new programs that bring congregants together. For instance, Jerusalem Shabbat and Soul Spark are worship programs that are “unique to who we are. Being a dually affiliated congregation gives us fertile ground to experiment with things that are out of the box.
“The 40th anniversary of Temple Beth El is next year,” he noted. “We hope to celebrate it in person. Hopefully, we will continue to develop the relationship, to evolve and be a unique part of the Jewish community. Meanwhile, it’s nice to recognize and celebrate the anniversary of being affiliated.”
Ilene Schneider is a contributing writer to Jlife magazine.