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Home Columns View from Denver Changing identities at ‘the Denver Synagogue’

Changing identities at ‘the Denver Synagogue’

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BMH-BJ unveils a new logo and identity,” reads a headline in this week’s IJN. BMH-BJ is now “the Denver Synagogue.”

I have witnessed new identities at BMH and BJ since I was five years old.

My father loved the late Rabbi Charles Kauvar, the longest serving rabbi in Denver’s history, 1902-1952, then another 20 years as emeritus. My father made sure to take me to visit Rabbi Kauvar before my Bar Mitzvah.

This saintly man regaled me with stories of his boyhood in Vilna, Lithuania, how he used to get up at five in the morning each day to study Torah.

I remember Rabbi Kauvar’s sukkah, to this day still the most beautiful sukkah I have ever seen.

I learned later that Rabbi Kauvar helped finance the publication of the learned works on Torah of Rabbi Judah Leib Ginsberg (d. 1945), who lived on the West Side. That bridge between the Orthodoxy of the West Side and the somewhat different Judaism in BMH symbolized the struggle for identity that characterizes BMH till this day.

At any rate, the first change in identity at BMH that registered in my consciousness came with the arrival of Rabbi Samuel Adelman in 1957. Rabbi Kauvar had pulled BMH out of the United Synagogue, the Conservative synagogue body, because, he said, Conservative Judaism was no longer a branch of the Orthodox Judaism he studied at Jewish Theological Seminary, before 1902, when JTS was a modern Orthodox institution.

Which specific change in Conservative Judaism Rabbi Kauvar objected to, I never learned, but he insisted that BMH now affiliate with the Orthodox Union, and that its rabbis come from Yeshiva University, not the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The change in identity that Rabbi Adelman introduced was far more than a formal one. “Soviet Jewry” and “civil rights” and “rights for the disabled” became major part of the BMH identity under Rabbi Adelman. Above all, Torah study, Halachah and attendance at advance yeshivas became the hallmarks of the new identity he brought to BMH.

MEANWHILE, in 1951, at the community center in Montclair Park, Rabbi Daniel Goldberger, 28, was carrying Beth Joseph from its aged identity on 24th and Curtis Sts. to a young, East Side, identity — the first Denver synagogue to locate east of Colorado Blvd.

If you blinked more than a couple of times, you could miss the growth, building by building, year by year, on 8th and Holly St. Beth Joseph grew by 100 families per year from 1951 to 1960 under Rabbi Goldberger, a rabbinic pied piper.

The fates of these two synagogues — BMH and BJ — illustrate the unpredictability and fluidity of American synagogue life. Many of those 100, new, annual Beth Joseph families came at the expense of HEA, then on a shrinking West Side, and of BMH, then in Capitol Hill, once a strong Jewish neighborhood, but by the 1950s in rapid decline Jewishly. As Beth Joseph grew, BMH and HEA lost members.

No one would predict that by 1994 the respective success rates of these three shuls would be in exact reverse.

(That same decline of Jewry in Capitol Hill motivated Temple Emanuel to move from its Pearl Street location to east of Colorado Blvd. in 1956; and that same increase in traditionalism at BMH pushed a small group to found Rodef Shalom in 1954; these instances of changing synagogue identities are stories for another time.)

THE next major change in Jewish identity at BMH was Rabbi Adelman’s sudden death in 1966, on the morning of the very day he was to dedicate, that afternoon, the new East Side chapel of BMH — which its leadership had striven mightily to actualize, in order to save the congregation.

Rabbi Goldberger went into mourning and seclusion for 24 hours upon Rabbi Adelman’s passing. The Jewish community was in a daze. It felt like the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination three years earlier.

Slowly, after various other changes in identity at BMH — a synagogue too shocked by Rabbi Adelman’s death to hire another rabbi for three years; the move of Cantor Irving Gross to the East Coast and of education director William L. Elefant to the West Coast; the heroic efforts of Jacob Cohen, executive director cum Torah reader cum chazzan cum Hebrew school teacher to hold the shul together — BMH began to rise under Rabbi Stanley Wagner, who came in 1972.

In 1970, Rabbi Goldberger dropped a bombshell of his own, announcing his retirement from the synagogue rabbinate, after 20 years of tremendous growth of BJ. He needed a change of direction and went into pastoral counseling.

Despite capable leaders at Beth Joseph, most notably Rabbi Jerome Lipsitz, Cantors Maurice Weiss and Isaac Koll, and Jerry Rotenberg, Beth Joseph never really recovered from the loss of Rabbi Goldberger at the top.

Despite its once unforseeable dynamic growth on the East Side under Rabbi Wagner, BMH faced another a crisis of identity in 1988. More consistent halachic standards at the Orthodox Union required its member synagogues to have mechitzah, a partition separating men and women during prayer, which BMH did not have.

The membership of BMH in the OU was threatened. The move to the OU in 1957, then seen as a strong move to the right, left the synagogue 30 years later ironically on the extreme left of American Orthodoxy.

A compromise had the BMH found a mechitzah minyan, not in its main sanctuary, and found an NCSYchapter, in 1988. I helped broker the founding of that minyan.

So now BMH had something of a dual identity, an issue that Rabbi Wagner and his successor Rabbi Yaakov Chaitovsky struggled with. A counterbalancing factor for stability was the continuity of its cantorial leadership, under Zachary Kutner; then, after 1994, Joel Lichterman.

BY 1994, a falling membership at Beth Joseph stimulated another change in identity: the merger of Beth Joseph and BMH.

A glorious future was predicted as a membership gain and a cash infusion was realized from the sale of Beth Joseph. But again, the retirement of a dynamic leader at the top, this time Rabbi Wagner in 1997, blunted that future to an extent, as still another synagogue, this time the HEA, moved east of Colorado Blvd. in 1994. Ironically, many BJ members had found a home there because Rabbi Goldberger went back into the rabbinate in 1979 at HEA  upon Rabbi Manuel Laderman’s retirement.

The next major change in identity at the now merged BMH-BJ came in 2000-2002, when the mechitzah minyan went from one morning a week, namely, Shabbos morning, to seven days a week. I was the rabbi of this minyan at that time, and Benjy Last was active at the synagogue.

With the arrival of Rabbis Doniel Cohen and Selwyn Franklin after 2002, BMH-BJ showed good vitality, sustaining its reputation as a major “Denver synagogue,” yet its dual identity was left unresolved.

Some at the synagogue see this dual identity as a positive. BMH-BJ, they believe, is stronger for its diversity. I believe that this undersells the shul’s spiritual potential  and growth potential.

One thing is clear, as the energetic Rabbi Ben Greenberg takes over: BMH-BJ reaches out. And BMH-BJ, like all Denver synagogues, works to remain relevant in a more geographically scattered and demographically diverse Denver Jewry. Synagogue identity is never static.

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Last Updated ( Thursday, 11 October 2012 09:18 )  

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