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Wednesday, December 19, 2007

An unexpected partnership

On November 29, a deal was signed in Deerfield Beach, Florida, which saved Temple Beth Israel, the giant Conservative congregation, from extinction. And the lifesavers were none other than Chabad Lubavitch. How an ultra-Orthodox group came to form a partnership with a Conservative shul is an compelling story for our time.

Founded in 1977, Temple Beth Israel had about 2,000 member families in the early 1980s, when my parents and in-laws were living in Century Village, a huge retirement community. Beth Israel was so popular that there was a waiting list for those wanting to join. Whenever we visited, my father-in-law would take my wife and me, and one, two or three of our sons with him for Shabbat services, where the presence of youngsters brought wide attention from the hundreds of bubbies and zeidies. My sons were puzzled by the majestic and bilingual services, so different from the wrap-'em-up Shabbat prayers we knew in Israel.

Right up the street was the storefront Young Israel Orthodox congregation, where a few dozen families staunchly rejected Beth Israel's family seating and microphone. Sometimes I would daven in Young Israel, where the services (apart from the Ashkenazi accents) were much closer to the Israeli model.

Way back then, Century Village was, as my father would say, "99.9% Jewish, and I know the one Italian family."

But the only constant is change. In 2007, the only one of our parents left in Century Village is my mother. The demographics have changed completely. For more than a decade, the new people moving in have been either Orthodox Jews or gentiles.

On a recent trip, I couldn't help but notice this in the clubhouse gym and pools. In the past, these locations looked and sounded like a Jackie Mason skit: old Jews shvitzing, kvetching, bumping into each other and shouting in dialect, "Hey Morty, I see you're still alive this morning."

"Sophie, where didya go eat yesterday?" "Stop yer splashin'. Lady, yer grandson's gettin' my hair wet."

Today, you're more likely to see large gold crucifixes hanging around necks.

Young Israel outgrew its storefront and built a huge synagogue rivaling the Conservative one, filled with worshipers every Shabbat. Members of the Young Israel now populate the condos in walking distance to their shul.

MEANWHILE, over in Temple Beth Israel, a few dozen people gather for Shabbat services. Membership has plummeted to some 200 families. There isn't enough income to employ a rabbi, and there was talk that even the salary of Cantor Charles Segelbaum, the acting spiritual leader for the past three years, would have to be cut.

"Our days appeared to be numbered," says the London-born Segelbaum."The few dues-paying members weren't providing us with enough income to continue functioning as a congregation."

Then, a few months ago, Ken Barnett, Beth Israel's new board chairman, had an inspired idea. Alerted to the nearby Chabad Lubavitch group of North Broward and South Palm Beach Counties, which was looking for a permanent place to pray, he thought that perhaps they could be the answer to Beth Israel's prayers. The Chabadniks had no place to daven but they were giving classes and what they call "Lunch & Learn" sessions.

Barnett made a shiduch between the Chabadniks and the Conservatives, between those with a big building and a shrinking congregation - and those with a growing population and no building.

"We were invited to a members' meeting at Temple Beth Israel," explains Rabbi Yossi Goldblatt, the leader of the Chabad group. "I told the members that we don't want to make any changes in how they do things. I said we can give classes, lectures and other activities that will bring people into the building, and life back to the congregation. I was received very well, and with a lot of interest."

However, some members were suspicious that once "inside," the Chabad group would try to change the nature of Beth Israel, which prides itself as being "Conservative, traditional and egalitarian," having mixed seating and calling women to the bima for the Torah reading. Eventually, they were convinced that Chabad would do nothing to interfere with the Conservative way of prayer services.

Ken Barnett adds that Beth Israel's members, who include Holocaust survivors and other immigrants from Europe, may have a special positive feeling for the Chabadniks, with their old world dress and customs. This, he believes, may have also helped to soften their opposition to the partnership.

Within a short while, a deal was hammered out. In return for yearly cash payments which would give Beth Israel a comfortable operating budget, the Chabadniks would receive use of the building and other Beth Israel assets. At this stage, they will use the small chapel for daily and Shabbat services - after installing a mehitza. The Conservatives will continue to use the main sanctuary for their Shabbat services, while sharing the chapel with Chabad for the daily minyan. No one has objected to the mehitza - and since women do not regularly attend the daily minyan, its presence is largely irrelevant.

The cash inflow from Chabad is allowing Beth Israel to hire a rabbi and an executive director, after being without either for several years.

When the congregation met to vote for the partnership agreement, over 90% were in favor.

Cantor Segelbaum expects that as the Conservative congregation continues to shrink and the Chabadniks grow, the latter will eventually take over the huge sanctuary, and the Conservatives will move to the little chapel.

"What can you do?" he shrugs. "That's reality. But I figure that this arrangement will give us at least another five years of life."

Ken Barnett believes that these years will be filled with nachas for his congregants, "thanks to the financial support and sensitivity of our Chabad partner."

As Rabbi Goldblatt put its: "It's a deal that's good for the Jews."

The writer does advertising and direct mail in Jerusalem. He has been visiting Century Village in Deerfield Beach, where his mother now lives, for over 25 years.

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