“WE were wandering Jews from our founding in 1992, renting space for many years, until the Temple Beit Torah congregation purchased its own home, in 2004,” according to Dick Conn, president of Temple Beit Torah (TBT).
Rabbi Irvin Ehrlich, retired US Air Force chaplain, was TBT’s founding rabbi, and Conn was its first president.
TBT’s early homes were at Benet Hill Monastery, Faith Presbyterian Church, a location near the Citadel Mall, and space at a facility owned by Temple Shalom. So from the very beginning of the Reform congregation, interfaith cooperation and collaboration were important parts of its culture.
Conn brings his leadership experience to the synagogue leadership from his many years serving as an Air Force officer, and from the Colorado Springs non-profit community, as the former executive director of Partners in Housing, an agency serving homeless families with children.
WHILE member engagement is usually a challenge for synagogues, TBT congregants have always been willing to provide volunteer time in a variety of activities. Members serve as volunteer religious school teachers, on committees and on the board, organize special events, participate in TBT sisterhood and brotherhood, and provide outreach to community members in need.
As a small congregation, there is more flexibility than some larger congregations, engaging a higher proportion of their members in all aspects of congregational life. In addition, due to the relatively high proportion of interfaith families, programs and services are designed to meet the needs of Reform and interfaith families of all ages and backgrounds.
For example, the Spirio family is among the most involved interfaith families in TBT. Felicia Spirio serves as sisterhood president while her husband, Dane, is the brotherhood president. Both, serve on the temple board. Dane attends services at St. Patrick church and participates in TBT activities as well. The Spirios’ son, Jareth, organizes teen movie night sleepovers at the Temple for post-B’nai Mitzvah-aged teens.
Interfaith outreach is a key area of focus since many congregants feel strongly about community involvement.
According to Roberta Huttner, TBT’s outreach coordinator for the Interfaith Hospitality Network, “active involvement in the interfaith community in Colorado Springs is more than a mitzvah, it’s just really a good thing to do in our community, and visibly expresses Jewish beliefs and values.”
OTHER examples of TBT outreach initiatives include: TBT assisting St. Patrick church in their Christmas and Thanksgiving holiday food drive, and St. Patrick helping TBT with their wine tasting fundraiser by hosting this fun event; adults from both congregations support the event with donations and participation. Some TBT members participate in the St. Patrick seder, and the church draws approximately 300 participants.
With Housing First, a local homeless nonprofit provider, and United Methodist Church, the TBT book club developed a literacy initiative for the chronically homeless population in Colorado Springs. TBT members donate books to the homeless, and for this effort, TBT received the World Book Night Award.
The congregation has enjoyed a supportive and relatively close relationship with many of its non-Jewish neighbors. An anti-Semitic incident brought this to light when three years ago, a swastika was painted on the outside of the TBT building.
In response, the neighborhood organized a peaceful Shabbat march to demonstrate their support and respect for Beit Torah. Some neighbors volunteered to provide security to the synagogue for several weeks after the incident.
IN 2010, after TBT’s second rabbi, Donald Levy, accepted a position in Australia, the congregation was faced with a decision regarding financial support of the synagogue’s building, as well as funding a full-time rabbi.
The congregation decided to keep the building while finding a rabbi who could offer them some level of affordable, part-time support. TBT engaged Denver-based Rabbi Steven Kaye, whose expertise includes organizational development, leadership development, board support and consulting.
Kaye started by leading High Holiday services for the temple, then began leading periodic Shabbat services as well as supporting and teaching the B’nai Mitzvah students.
Most importantly, according to Kaye, “I serve as an additional resource, as a rabbinic voice to affirm some of their decisions and support their ongoing efforts.”
Informally, Kaye discusses and advises the president and the board around issues and challenges: “TBT is a Reform synagogue, so I’m involved in dialogue around questions of Jewish identity, what is the role of the non-Jew in the life of the congregation, etc. Reform Judaism is simply the lens that issues are seen through in contemporary American life.”
In Rabbi Kaye’s view, TBT is particularly strong as a congregation due to its’ “core group of members who are not afraid of stepping up and volunteering to make things happen. When I’m not there, lay leaders lead services. There’s a school director who works very hard to provide what’s needed.”
Another active congregant, Shari Bevans, ritual committee chair, organizes congregants to lead services when Rabbi Kaye isn’t scheduled for services.
TBT exemplifies this strong sense of volunteerism, combined with a deep sense of caring and commitment to maintaining a Reform congregation with Reform values. Board President, Dick Conn, strives to utilize the resources of URJ, of Rabbi Kaye and his expertise as well as the experiences within Denver area synagogues.
“I feel honored to be able to support them in a limited, part-time capacity as their rabbi”, says Rabbi Kaye.
“We’re reaching out to previous members, calling them to let them know that there is a rabbinic presence. I think it’s different when a rabbi calls them.
“Many of the challenges facing TBT are similar to other organizations in this age of the Internet, there’s a smallness and intimacy and sense of community in the congregation, which is something that people are seeking. In addition, with such a significant Christian fundamentalist presence in Colorado Springs, having a Jewish voice from both congregations is important to the non-Jewish community. The more involved the synagogues and congregants are in the local Jewish community, the better.”
Like many synagogues, a variety of activities and programs are geared to children of all ages. Working with the local Jewish Committee on Scouting, Mark Van Bueren serves as Advisor for Boy Scout Troop 5771, including coordination of programs such as the Scout Shabbat service.
Copyright © 2014 by the Intermountain Jewish News