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Embarking on the 613th commandment: Beth El celebrates its 80th year
December 2nd, 2005
In the 80 years since Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue first formed on Milwaukee’s west side, there is one mitzvah the members of this Conservative congregation have never attempted.
But this year, in honor of Beth El’s 80th anniversary, congregants have begun to work toward completing that mitzvah and fulfilling the 613th commandment — by writing their own Torah.
“Eighty is a [number] of strength and a renewal of strength,” according to Rabbi Gideon Goldenholz, who has been spiritual leader of the synagogue for 21 years.
And “we’re viewing the Torah as the essence of that capacity for renewal and rejuvenation” through the array of educational and social events and activities that will take place during the year it will take to complete writing the Torah scroll, Goldenholz said.
The new Torah and accompanying programs are made possible by a $10,000 grant awarded to Beth El from the Helen Bader Foundation.
The Conservative synagogue, which was formed in 1925, has gone through several changes in its existence, according to Goldenholz.
“When I started as the rabbi of the congregation,” Goldenholz said, “it was very traditional.” Although throughout the years “it has maintained a traditional ambience,” he said, “we have moved more towards center from the right.”
The congregation has grown, with approximately 350 families, Goldenholz said. Also, “we have grown younger,” he said, noting that the synagogue school, which has “earned national recognition for excellence,” was expanded about 10 years ago.
The synagogue has developed several new programs in recent years, including Kids in Shabbat Service that encourages children to take active roles in service leadership; alternative and healing services “that attracted many unaffiliated” Jews; and a Torah readers club which now has 140 members, the most for any Conservative congregation of Beth El’s size anywhere in the country, Goldenholz said.
Goldenholz said the synagogue has plans for even more of “a variety of different approaches” for the year ahead.
The schedule of events, according to Goldenholz, includes opportunities that will reach out to “every single member of the congregation” as well as the local Jewish days schools and the greater Jewish community.
“This [yearlong celebration] is a marvelous opportunity to reconnect with our own congregation and with people who have had past connections with Beth El,” said Bob Rudman, president of Beth El.
The events will “grow the awareness” of our congregants, Goldenholz said, with programs that will encourage “people to be attached to the text and the symbolism that it represents and the way of life it teaches.”
The synagogue also plans to become more inclusive. “We’re going to be more open for the interfaith community to come and learn and to share with us. We want to welcome them and make them part of our congregational life, [get them] connected to Torah and have an opportunity to engage in this process,” Goldenholz said.
The programs planned so far include Torah-writing workshops, Hebrew calligraphy lessons for children, Torah yoga, and adult and intergenerational classes, among others.
Other events are also being planned, including a vow renewal ceremony for all couples that have been married at Beth El, and reunions of youth and choir members. These types of events will allow people with past ties to the synagogue “to come back and participate in the history-making event,” according to Steve Weinstein, chair of the Beth El Torah project.”
There will also be “opportunities for people to sponsor a portion of the Torah being written,” Weinstein said.
The first words of the new Torah were written by scribe Rabbi Zerach Greenfield, at a formal dinner and program that took place at the synagogue on Sunday, Nov. 20.
The very first letters were written by the youngest member of the Beth El religious school class, Jake Zimmerman, 8, as a reminder that “the Torah we are writing is going to be for [our] children, grandchildren, and those who come after,” Weinstein said.
The events all present “a wonderful educational opportunity,” for the local Jewish community, said Rudman. “I think we’ll have some people renew ties, involvement and interest in the synagogue and in Judaism.”