Clergy like to tell the story of a synagogue’s new rabbi in the first week on the job who encounters two congregants arguing.
One said congregants should rise for the shema; the other insisted they should remain seated.
Back and forth they went, when finally the rabbi asked what the tradition was in the synagogue. They argued about that, too, prompting the rabbi to ask: “Is there an elder in the synagogue who might know?”
They decided to ask Simon, one of the synagogue founders. But upon visiting Simon in the Old Home and asking him about the tradition for the shema, the two men began arguing anew.
Finally, Simon looked at the rabbi, pointed to the two men arguing and said, “THAT’S our tradition!”
Rabbi Moishe Steigmann found a different situation at Congregation Cnesses Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Green Bay, when he was hired on a half-time basis in August 2017.
“This is an older community, but the energy and excitement that congregants have is inspiring,” said Steigmann, who is 44 and has children ages 12 and 9. “Sometimes in a synagogue like this, people are stuck in their ways. Based on stereotype, a new rabbi in a long-standing community would find it difficult to institute change. But here, the openness to trying new things is energizing. While this community embraces the history of the synagogue, they are passionate about making Judaism work now.”
The biggest change was going from a full-time rabbi (Shaina Bacharach) who lived in town to a half-time rabbi who commutes from Glendale. Bacharach remains an active CCI member.
From adding English to services to making changes to Purim celebrations and to the kashrut policy, Steigmann found an attitude of, “Judaism is different in 2020 than it was in 1993. This is what we have to do, so let’s do it. People were open and willing to embrace change.”
CCI filed for organization status in 1898, a building was finished by 1903 and the 120-family congregation held its first service in 1904. But a dwindling membership – less than 50 family units now and a lack of children – caused CCI leadership to determine they could no longer afford a full-time rabbi. So, Bacharach retired.
A dedicated group of volunteers, who past president Libbie Miller says “are absolutely phenomenal,” have kept things going. But Miller’s niece, past president Sandra Burrows, worries about what will happen once her generation is gone.
“Green Bay has changed,” she said. “Now the huge factories that were locally owned are owned by big corporations outside of Green Bay. So, we no longer have Jewish people move into town as managers and executives.
“And when the mall came in downtown, people were paid handsomely for their businesses and they all left.”
Because CCI now is made up of mostly older people, prospective members don’t see children when they visit. There is no longer a religious school, b’nai mitzvah is rare and Burrows estimates it’s been at least 30 years since a wedding has been held in the congregation.
Among the members over the years was Ron Wolf when he was general manager of the Green Bay Packers. Like every organization in Green Bay, CCI has to be aware of the Packers’ schedule when doing its own scheduling.
Burrows, 79, was born and raised in Green Bay. She married and lived around the country but eventually returned with her two children and joined CCI, where her parents still belonged.
Miller is from Brooklyn, N.Y., came to Green Bay in 1951, raised her four children there and became very active. Miller, 92, said, “I tend to say yes when someone asks.” Burrows, who has held every Board position, said, “I’m a doer.”
But will be there enough doers and enough people saying “yes” to sustain the synagogue? A handout to CCI guests reads, in part, “This is a place where we come together as a community. CCI is a second home for all of us. For those who have been attending their whole lives and whose ancestors founded the synagogue over one hundred years ago, to guests and visitors walking through the doors for the first time, we all find CCI to be a compassionate, loving and embracing community. All who enter are family.”
Burrows said, “We are a community that likes to sing and do things together.” In the COVID-19 era, getting together mostly means seeing each other on Zoom. There were 35 people on Zoom for Rosh Hashanah, “and we thought that was great,” Miller said.
CCI relies on interest from funds set up long ago, because dues aren’t enough.
“I feel badly that there’s not too much positive to say,” Burrows said. “But people who are here certainly are trying to make a go of things and are reluctant to let go. If this was a bigger community, I might not be as active as I am. But I feel I have to help keep things going. We can’t give up.”
Meanwhile, Steigmann said he is getting used to a small synagogue after spending six of his career years as an assistant rabbi at a 550-family synagogue in New York. He’s liking it.
“People are so kind, welcoming and so genuine here,” Steigmann said. “It’s such a wonderful down-to-earth community.”
Chabad of the Bay Area
Rabbi Michoel Feinstein, 37, and his wife, Esther, moved to Green Bay in 2010. They have seven children, all boys, who range in age from 12 to 2.
“Part of the responsibility of Chabad rabbis is to always keep looking for communities that need Jewish support,” Feinstein said.
He serves Jews not only in Green Bay, but in Appleton, Manitowoc, Wausau and Door County.
“In the era of COVID, we have expanded our online presence using Zoom, which has allowed us to invite people who might otherwise have a four-hour drive,” Feinstein said.
He added, “We are not really a synagogue but an education center.”
Feinstein provides one-one-one and group classes on the Torah, Chassidic philosophy, the holidays, and Hebrew as well as prayer service and chaplaincy. And the arrival of Chabad also has brought more kosher food to the city.
For all that, Feinstein said, “You do not have to pay to pray. But of course, only leaves grow on trees. We look at it not as contributing but partnering in our work.”
His wish list includes the completion of a building expansion and a mikvah that will mean women won’t have to take a four-hour round-trip ride to Mequon’s mikvah.
“My wish list long-term is for every Jewish person in our area to better connect to the Jewish community and experience what we do,” Feinstein said.