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In new space, Madison’s Shaarei Shamayim comes full circle

By Andrea Waxman
of The Chronicle staff

September 25th, 2008

First Unitarian Society of Madison's meeting house

First Unitarian Society of Madison's meeting house

These are upbeat times for Madison’s Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, which just completed its chai, or 18th year, as Wisconsin’s only Reconstructionist/Renewal congregation and one of only two affiliated with the Reconstructionist movement.

In addition to reaching this significant milestone, the congregation, whose membership comprises some 100 households, recently moved into a historic building, designed by the world-renowned Wisconsin architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Founding member and past president Jeff Spitzer-Resnick told The Chronicle that the congregation, which had been renting space for services from Madison’s Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society for some 15 years, moved to the First Unitarian Society of Madison’s meeting house mostly for space reasons.

Jeff Spitzer-Resnick

Jeff Spitzer-Resnick

But, he said, it was also because unlike “Prairie, [which] is a very simple, functional place ... we are now in a world-famous, spiritually-moving place, [that] almost takes your breath away.”

Shaarei Shamayim’s first service in its new home was held Sept. 6.

Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman, Shaarei Shamayim’s spiritual leader since 2002, said in a telephone interview last week that the space is wonderfully flexible.

“One advantage to sharing space with the Unitarians is that there are no Christian symbols,” whose presence would be problematic in a Jewish worship space, Zimmerman noted.

Shaarei Shamayim has use of the building on Friday evening and Saturday, while it continues to hold religious school classes in another location.

Gates of Heaven
Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman

Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman

This move is one chapter in a long relationship between Madison Jewry and the Unitarian community, Zimmerman said.

“The first German Jews in Madison established the first Congregation Shaare Shomaim, a Reform congregation, and held their first Rosh HaShanah service in 1856,” said Madison historian Jonathan Pollack, a history instructor at Madison Area Technical College.

“They held services in people’s homes until their first building was completed in 1863.”

Ten years later, fallout from a big bank panic had a major effect on Madison’s Jewish community, which scattered to other places. By 1879, the congregation had disbanded.

Jonathan Pollack

Jonathan Pollack

Among the few members who stayed in Madison, however, was Samuel Klauber, a leader of the congregation since its inception. Approached by the first Unitarians in Madison about renting the synagogue building, Klauber and others agreed to rent it out to them.

According to Pollack, “Klauber then went a step further and started actually attending the Unitarian church with his family and he became active in that congregation. And as that congregation grew and got too big for this little space they were renting, Klauber helped them plan a building campaign and find a site and hire an architect. So, in 1885 the First Unitarian congregation moved out of the synagogue and into its own building on Wisconsin Ave. in downtown Madison.”

The synagogue building, now known by its English name, “Gates of Heaven,” eventually fell into disrepair. But in the 1970s, as the building was being threatened with demolition, some members of Madison’s Jewish community persuaded the city to buy it and it was moved to James Madison Park.

It is still rented out for concerts, art exhibits, weddings, parties and, occasionally, Jewish services and activities.

Pollack, who is writing a history of the Madison Jewish community to be published by the University of Wisconsin Press, said that the building contains an ark and a bimah, as well as a display case with artifacts and photographs associated with the building. An alternative High Holiday service has been conducted there for unaffiliated Jews for many years.

Perhaps coincidentally, a group that met at those services eventually founded the present-day Congregation Shaarei Shamayim.

With intention

Shaarei Shamayim is, for the most part, made up of “two pools of people,” observed Spitzer-Resnick, an attorney and Detroit native who grew up in the Conservative movement.

The original 1863 Gates of Heaven synagogue building

The original 1863 Gates of Heaven synagogue building

One is people who have never been affiliated, and the other is people, like himself, who were very disillusioned with the mainstream movements, he said.

Spitzer-Resnick, 49, remembers a defining moment when that alienation occurred one summer when he worked as a counselor at a Camp Ramah in Canada.

He said that he and some others were reprimanded for their high spirits while singing prayers.

“We got a horrible lecture” about our attitude not being in the spirit of Shabbat, he said, adding that it led him to rethink what felt like “inappropriate rigidity and hypocrisy,” he said.

He remained outside of organized Judaism until 1989, when he connected with the other founding members of the new Shaarei Shamayim, which became his spiritual home.

“Part the beauty of Reconstructionism is that it’s very conscious and intentional,” he said. “People are there for a reason. They’re not there just because it’s the synagogue in the neighborhood.”

And Spitzer-Resnick is finally satisfied with the way in which decisions are made by all concerned rather than being handed down from on high.

“A classic example of how the Reconstructionists do things, he said, can be seen in the movement’s approach to the sanctioning of gay marriage, which it did before the other denominations.

“The movement said, ‘Here is this white paper on gay marriage. Now you guys discuss it in local communities and figure out what you want to do,’” Spitzer-Resnick said.

“To me that’s the essence of real spirituality, that people come [to this movement and to this congregation] because that’s where they want to be.”