Can a relationship celebrate a Bar Mitzvah?

by | May 20, 2014 | Other News

The “Bar Mitzvah boy” did not receive a fountain pen. There was no sheet cake shaped like a Torah scroll. No band played too loudly, and no one raided a 401k plan to pay for the event. And yet, when two of Tidewater’s Masorti/ Conservative congregations, Kehillat Bet HaMidrash (KBH) of Kempsville and Temple Israel of Norfolk, celebrated the 13th year of their partnership, on the Shabbat of March 22, the feeling of a Bar Mitzvah was very much in the air.

Alene Kaufman and Sharon Grossman, past presidents of each congregation who were at the helm at the inception of the partnership, reminisced about what brought the congregations together, and each emphasized the high degree of respect for each other that has made the partnership an ongoing success. Jason Silverstein, Harvey Eluto and Phil Walzer, current co-presidents of KBH and president of Temple Israel, symbolically held a Torah pointer and shared an aliyah, giving the “Bar Mitzvah” a ritual expression.

The two congregations began their programming partnership in the 5760 (2000/2001) synagogue season. They merged their Sunday religious schools, each congregation supplying teachers and students to the enlarged school. They created a schedule of worship services at each location for the combined membership— selected festival morning services at Temple Israel, annual Friday night services and Shabbat dinners at KBH. They celebrate special moments on the calendar together— Lag B’Omer and Yom Ha-Atsma’ut at KBH, Yom Ha-Zikaron at Temple Israel.

Rabbi Michael Panitz, spiritual leader of Temple Israel since 1992, gives an adult education lecture series at KBH every winter. This year, the series dealt with “Jews in the arts.” Cantor David Proser, who has served as the clergy for KBH for an entire generation, endures being bedecked with silly hats by the children, each Simchat Torah morning, as he chants the haftarah or the musaf prayers.

The partnership exists because it benefits both congregations. Temple Israel has members in Virginia Beach, Portsmouth and the Peninsula, as well as Norfolk. A Kempsville location for programs means that many of Temple Israel’s members can skip a considerable drive and still receive value for their membership. KBH does not employ ordained clergy, and so access to one of the community’s rabbinic veterans helps its own members in spiritual, educational and pastoral areas of Jewish life.

Why don’t the two congregations simply merge? According to their leaders, the continued independence of the two institutions, at least for now, is how they are true to their natures. Each one fulfills an important task, and a merger would weaken, not strengthen, their ability. Rabbi Panitz knows about this from personal experience.

“As a rabbinic intern, I served a small congregation which saw fit to merge with a much larger one during my final student year. The merger was a disaster in terms of the Jewish engagement of the members of the smaller congregation. No longer challenged to keep their shul operating, they relaxed…too much! And the larger congregation’s members made no serious attempt to understand and welcome the new members. They mostly saw the merger in terms of the revenue they gained from the sale of a building. As a result, after only a few years, not a single member of the smaller congregation was still active in the successor synagogue. Instead of a merger, it was extinction for one of the congregations.

“I was determined that Temple Israel and KBH would find a better way. Our lay leaders have embraced a good vision of celebrating each other, which is the foundation of the success of our partnership,” says Rabbi Panitz.

The good feelings are equally shared by leaders and members of both congregations. Cantor Proser says, “It has been most enjoyable to work with Temple Israel over the past 13 years of our programming partnership. The educational benefits for both our Hebrew and Sunday School age children, as well as our adult members, have been immeasurable. We look forward to every opportunity to share joint services and social events while still maintaining our individual congregational identities. We have enjoyed many years of interesting and informative adult education programs led by Rabbi Panitz with his vast wealth of Judaic knowledge. As a “lay” leader, I have highly valued the assistance and guidance that I have received from Rabbi Panitz during this period, and I am honored to consider him my colleague, my teacher, and my friend. We look forward to many more years of programming cooperation and joint activities between our two congregations.”

by Elie Bar Adon