‘Spiritual remodeling’ at La Crosse congregation

A La Crosse congregation — more than 100 years old — is going through a spiritual remodeling, after the retirement of its rabbi of 37 years.

Congregation Sons of Abraham has been a steadfast pillar of Conservative Judaism in La Crosse for over a century, but with the retirement of Rabbi Simcha Prombaum on June 30, 2019, the congregation is opening itself to both Reform and Conservative Judaism simultaneously.

Contending with rapidly shifting demographics and increased congregational support for a more liberalized Judaism, CSOA has entered a transitional period. Although the congregation is still affiliated with Conservative Judaism, a recent influx of young, interfaith families has led it to become more liberal and take on aspects of Reform Judaism.

The Congregation’s new spiritual leader, Cantor Brian Serle, is taking what he believes to be an innovative approach to address CSOA’s challenges — embracing “all things for all Jews.” This change is Serle’s new vision for the future of the synagogue — embracive of change while remaining respectful of past precedent and Jewish tradition.

“This career is a dream for me … to work with a congregation like this one is a life dream for me. The culmination of my Jewish spiritual journey,” Serle said during an interview.

Because it is the only congregation in the La Crosse area, CSOA must meet everyone’s needs and reach out to a diverse group of people, he continued. The congregation’s newfound religious diversity is evident in its latest approach to services, which now alternate weekly between Reform and Conservative.

“So far, people are adapting to the practice,” Serle said. While some congregants are “very happy with the innovation,” others prefer the Conservative service, and some do not lean in either direction. 

Serle sees young families and the elderly as the two key demographics of CSOA’s future. While these young families are open to new ideas, “people who have been around for a long time may resist change somewhat,” he said. That’s why the congregation must uphold a balance between progress and tradition, he continued. The two groups have not yet clashed, but, “you can’t please everybody,” Serle said.

Serle also plans to conduct outreach to those who are not as knowledgeable about Hebrew or Judaism, including through the introduction of a learner’s service and the addition of more English to the existing services. These changes will increase understanding and will eliminate barriers to participation, he said.

When reaching out to these families, Serle plans to “bring Judaism to them where they are.” Though they may not be knowledgeable now, many in this group “are desperate for more Jewish knowledge and how to fit it into their lives,” he said.

By keeping a kosher kitchen and inviting congregants to his house for Shabbat dinner, Serle said he wants to serve as a role model for the congregation and a leader on Jewish practices for those who don’t feel comfortable being observant right away. But while certain observances may be special for some, Serle says, he does not want to force practices on anyone, and hopes congregants practice in any manner that brings them fulfillment.

He holds the title of spiritual leader because he is not an ordained rabbi. Although he has no rabbinical ordination, he is currently in rabbinical school, studying through the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute, a distance learning program for people who have the necessary skills and knowledge but need the recognition of an ordination. After he graduates in June 2020, he will become a full rabbi and will be able to perform the one function that necessitates an ordination — officiating at weddings.

Serle moved to Milwaukee in 1973 after marrying his ex-wife, a Milwaukee native. He quickly became involved in synagogue life in his newfound home, teaching Hebrew school at Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun and at the former Congregation Beth El Ner Tamid and Congregation Beth Israel, and leading children’s services at Beth El Ner Tamid. He was a member of Congregation Beth Israel, and later Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah. He also studied Torah, Haftorah and cantorial work, which gave him the skills to take a position as spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El in Sheboygan, where he presided from 2000-2005. 

Aside from changes to religious life, the synagogue will also begin hosting more cultural events, Serle said. Taking advantage of the cultural connection between Judaism and Israel will be the primary means, including Israeli music, food, dance, media and an Israeli book club. Music especially is important to him — he has played guitar for years and wants to help people express themselves through music. He is inviting the Milwaukee Jewish Chorale to work with CSOA as part of a grant program for small congregations, and the congregation will also hold more concerts and other musical events.

“This is my life dream, to be a leader in a congregation like this … this is more than a job,” he said. “It’s a family.”