When the members of Congregation Eilat had an 8.1-mile Torah processional to Temple Beth El in August, the result was “a transformation bringing together two congregational cultures into one home for Judaism, a center for Jewish life in south Orange County,” according to Rabbi Peter Levi of Temple Beth El in Aliso Viejo. “It’s a home for people looking to connect in every way.”
A series of meetings between the two congregations initiated by Jewish Federation and Family Services CEO Shalom Elcott began in December and culminated in overwhelming support for the relationship from everybody concerned. There was a “meet and greet” and then a discussion of talking points about common ground, which the two congregations found very quickly. The members of 43-year-old Congregation Eilat were asked to join Temple Beth El, explained Al Welland, the congregation’s executive director, and “the community is truly embracing this.”
Levi added that Temple Beth El, now in its thirtieth year, includes Jews who have grown up in all movements and is now home to people who consider themselves Reform, Conservative, or simply Jewish. The congregation, which comprises a large campus with spectacular views and room to accommodate more people and programs, will be formally affiliated with both the Reform and the Conservative movement.
“On Shabbat there will be Reform services in the sanctuary, Conservative services in the chapel, and a lay-led Torah study and minyan,” according to Jeff Greer, the executive vice president of Temple Beth El. For the High Holy Days there will be Reform adult, Conservative adult, and multigenerational options, and people can choose whatever services they would like to attend, added Alan Fenning, the president of TBE.
“We’ll still maintain a Conservative presence in south Orange County,” said Wendy Lupul, a long-time member of Congregation Eilat (23 years) and a lay leader there. She has had the responsibility of coordinating and leading Shabbat and holiday services and weekday minyanim) at Congregation Eilat and continues to be a lay leader at TBE.
There will be a kosher dairy kitchen but a kosher-style policy everywhere else at Temple Beth El. Temple Eilat’s administrator, Fay Zeramby, is now at Temple Beth El. Arielle Hanion, a rabbi who also performs as a cantor and who served as High Holy Day clergy at Temple Eilat two years ago, will help with the transition as well.
Levi believes that the new structure provides a chance to do something important for the greater Jewish community. “We have a commitment to be one community with diversity in our attitudes toward Israel and diversity in our forms of worship,” he said. “We’re not static. We keep evolving as the community evolves. Now we’re embracing diversity a little more. We’re staying committed to the plurality of Jewish expression.”
According to Fenning, “The key is deep relationships among members. When you have that unity, you can have diversity.”
“Unity is not sameness,” said Greer. “When you have a choir, you need for everybody to have parts before there can be harmony.”
Lupul, who served on a task force [subcommittee] of the transition committee, interviewing and assembling data about dually affiliated synagogues throughout the country, added, “A synagogue is more than worship. It’s Sisterhood, Brotherhood, youth, and chaverot too.”
Levi is “cognizant of people who have poured time and effort into Congregation Eilat,” adding, “We’re all strong when all institutions are strong. Now we can be creative and come together. We can be there for each other amidst joy, mourning, loss, and emotional attachment.”
As Fenning put it, “In challenging times the key is not to bemoan the state of the economy but to find solutions that will make you stronger in the future.”
The congregation is addressing the issue of how to create “a dynamic community of meaning, depth, and diversity going forward.” He added that Temple Beth El’s large campus can be “a wonderful home that will be open to the Jewish Federation and Family Services for programs, counseling, or whatever is appropriate.”
Fenning believes that the deepening of community and the primacy of relationships will come about through education and increasing Shabbat participation, which “fits well with Jewish identity formation.” Levi added that “Shabbat is central to a vital Jewish community and central to who we are as a people. We make the traditional liturgy open and welcoming.”
With the new structure, there will be a Conservative option for Saturday morning worship (as well as Conservative minyanim on weekdays). On the first and third Friday nights there is a “nosh” at 5:30 p.m. and then a Kabbalat Shabbat service where congregants daven, sing, and dance, embracing the traditional liturgy and music, at 6 p.m. On the fourth and fifth Fridays there is an actual Reform service at 7:30 p.m.
Levi, who is in his fifth year at Temple Beth El, understands transitions. He started at the temple when Rabbi Allen Krause had announced that he was going to retire. Now Rabbi Rachel Kort is director of community engagement at Temple Beth El, meaning that she is working on educational programming as the current director of education, Linda Kirsch, is working part-time before her retirement. The educational program is being developed “in teamwork fashion.” Eventually, a Conservative clergyperson will become part of the team, and Kort can devote more time to education when Kirsch retires. For now, according to Greer, Kort “can budget her time and is really disciplined.”
An education program might be the most challenging aspect of all for a congregation with multiple streams of Judaism, but “the best education is through engagement for identity formation,” Levi said. “People think education smacks of classrooms and textbooks, but it’s really a combination of experience and formal learning. This is not a traditional school.”
The religious school program will assimilate 28 students who had been at Congregation Eilat. There will be parallel programs for Bar and Bat Mitzvah training. “We’ll build tools for kids who have ownership of the tradition wherever they choose to continue,” Levi explained.
According to Greer, “This is an education system from cradle to maturity. We have a great adult education program.”
Fenning added, “We have a variety of overlapping concentric circles. Nothing stands alone.”
“We’re looking forward to an exciting beginning,” Lupul said.
Temple Beth El of South Orange County, which numbered about 650 families prior to the affiliation with Congregation Eilat, began with a small group of families in 1981. Then called Temple Beth El of Laguna Niguel, the congregation met for services, Sunday School, and Hebrew classes at a local church. Initially led by Rabbi Martin Weitz and then by Rabbi Robert Jacobs, the congregation continued to meet in the church until July 1984, when Rabbi Allen Krause replaced Rabbi Jacobs and immediately rented office space, hired a part-time secretary, and expanded the Hebrew school staff. In 1986 the congregation changed its name to Temple Beth El of South Orange County. In 1988, Cantor Shula Kalir Merton joined the congregation.
In 1992 Temple Beth El moved to a 3.4-acre plot of land in Aliso Viejo where services, Religious School classes, and administrative offices were all in one location. In 1998 the congregation sold that property and purchased a commercial building at the corner of Aliso Viejo Parkway and Liberty. With the leadership and generosity of Susan and Henry Samueli, the creation the synagogue at 2A Liberty became a reality. In that year Rabbi Johanna Hershenson joined Temple Beth El as associate rabbi.
In the fall of 2001, the Early Childhood Center (ECC) opened its doors, offering educational programs for children from ten months to six years. About the same time, Rabbi Hershenson left Temple Beth El to lead an Anchorage, Alaska, congregation as solo rabbi, and Rabbi Michael Churgel joined the clergy as Assistant Rabbi.
In 2004, Temple Beth El’s Religious School attained accreditation from the National Association of Temple Educators (NATE). The congregation also welcomed back Rabbi Hershenson, who left in 2006 to head up a congregation in New Zealand. At the same time, Temple Beth El welcomed Rabbi Peter Levi as associate rabbi. Rabbi Heather Miller served as associate rabbi when Rabbi Krause became rabbi emeritus and Rabbi Levi became senior rabbi. Rabbi Rachel Kort joined the congregation as director of community engagement in 2010.
For more than 40 years Congregation Eilat served as the only Conservative congregation in south Orange County. Its stated mission has been to create an atmosphere where Jewish values can be nurtured and enhanced. Its goal is to ensure that its future leaders of tomorrow, its youth, have a clear understanding of these values.
Now the two congregations have joined forces to create something even bigger and stronger in the south Orange County community.