HomeJanuary 2012Two Lights That Shine As One

Two Lights That Shine As One

When Temple Beth El, a Reform congregation, and Congregation Eilat, a Conservative synagogue, joined forces in 2010, it could have been a marriage of convenience.  The two entities could have chosen to function separately under one roof big enough to house them both and maintained totally unconnected identities.
“We heard a lot of stereotypes when we started on the journey, but we don’t hear them anymore,” said Jeff Greer, vice president of Judaism in action for the congregation.  “They’re just not challenges.”
What the congregation did is to blend the strengths of the two elements while providing multiple worship opportunities and resources for everyone involved.  A year after the merger, the 750-member congregation known as Temple Beth El of South Orange County is serving as a national role model for integrating streams of Judaism within one congregation.
According to Al Welland, executive director of Temple Beth El, the congregation is about one of ten such blended synagogues nationwide.  “There’s no longer the concept that we’re simply two congregations sharing a building.  We’re members of both the Reform and Conservative movement, and members attend both kinds of services.”
“It’s an opportunity to open our doors wider,” explained Rabbi Peter Levi.  “On Friday night we’re all together, and the education program meets.  All rabbis are teaching and preaching.  We’re clergy for the whole community.”
On the High Holy Days all rabbis preached in all of the services.  “We embraced our diversity in a wholesome and full-service way to fulfill everyone’s spiritual and religious needs, and now we’re settling into a nice model in a healthy fashion,” according to Levi.
“We didn’t want to have a subpart or a divide between congregants,” said Alan Fennig, immediate past president of the congregation. Ultimately, labels won’t be as important. Our goal is to have everybody feeling like part of the whole.”
Levi explained that on Saturday morning there are three different opportunities to come together for Shabbat.  There is a Conservative service in the newly renovated chapel, a Reform service in the sanctuary and a lay-led Torah study followed by a service.
“It’s a wonderful way that both communities can build relationships,” said Rabbinic Intern Kvod Wieder.  “There’s high-energy prayer, brunch, community study, more services and a way to count blessings with schnapps.  People are building relationships with each other, and the distinctions are less important.”
It all begins with education.  Leslie Tatel, a member of the congregation’s board of trustees who played a key role on the transition team, called education “a key factor in the union.”  She described the congregation’s Shabbat Chai programs as “vibrant, engaging and integrated” and said that “learning together has been a real success.”
Shabbat Chai, a religious education program for pre-K through 7th grades, is a Shabbat-based religious school model.  It meets on the first and third Fridays of the month from 4 to 7 p.m. and includes community Shabbat seevices from 6 to 7 p.m.  These services are an integral part of the curriculum.
The program seeks to transform classroom learning into a hands-on, authentic Shabbat experience, rather than talking about the experience in the classroom.  There are songs and stories for the younger children, project-based learning programs for the 3rd through 7th graders and junior youth group programs for the older students.
Hebrew school programs give the students the training they need to be ready for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah service in either the Reform or Conservative tradition.  There is training with a team of tutors, and the members of the clergy (Levi, Wieder and Rabbi Rachel Kort, who is the director of Jewish engagement) are a vital part of that team.  “Students learn the service and type of cantillation that is appropriate, and the whole process is seamless,” Levi said.
What really excites the clergy and lay leaders of the congregation is the post-Bar/Bat Mitzvah program.  There are NFTY and USY groups for students to identify with one movement or the other, but there is a teen community for everybody.
Moreover, there is a tzedakah board, a youth philanthropy foundation in which students contribute their own money, which is matched by additional fundraising or donor donations.  The students identify and research the social values important to them – poverty, cancer, resources for the disabled – and invite organizations to submit grant proposals to them.
“Then,” as Wieder explained, “in light of their Jewish ideals, they decide which organizations will get the money they’ve raised.  The teens are on fire with the idea of participating in the community in a meaningful way.  They know that Bar or Bat Mitzvah is not the end and understand that it’s just the beginning of their participation in the Jewish world.”
The education program is “just one of many on-ramps to Jewish life at this congregation,” according to Levi.  There are many adult education programs and opportunities to connect with the
As Wieder summarized, “It’s an example of the iPod generation.  Some Reform Jews are more traditional, and some Conservative Jews are less traditional.  You can pick your own playlist at Temple Beth El.”


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