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Centennial Reflections on religious Life and Community at BHA

06/29/2021 06:01:36 PM

Jun29

Anna Brady Marcus

A man stands at a table looking down and singing with a burning bunch of incense in his hand and a bottle of wine in front of him. There are women behind him singing and a banner above them that has the initials B.H.A. on it for Beacon Hebrew Alliance. It is black and white and the clothing of the people suggests it is the 1950s.
Dr. Louis Rogen leading a blessing at BHA, c. 1950, photo courtesy of Karen Moses

As we continue to explore the history of Beacon Hebrew Alliance and Jewish life in Beacon over the past 100 years, this month we are diving into the religious life and community that has always been at the heart of BHA and everything that happens here.

The Jewish people who came to Beacon in the early 20th century, and founded BHA, were by and large immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia. They brought with them a strong sense of communal living, structured around religious ritual and traditions, which had helped them survive centuries of persecution and oppression in Europe. When they came to America, they used their community ties to help establish themselves in their new surroundings, while also working together to maintain their Jewish identities and religious beliefs. 

Although they were in a new country, with new freedoms, and different laws, Jewish immigrants still faced discrimination in the U.S. for jobs, housing, and equal access to opportunities. There was also a growing anti-Semitic movement in the United States at the turn of the century that fed into isolationist political agendas after WWI. In fact, President Warren Harding signed the Quota Act of 1921, the same year that BHA was founded, which severely limited the number of immigrants and refugees allowed to come to the U.S. from different nations. This banned thousands of Jews seeking asylum in the U.S. during WWII in the 1930s and 40s, when the Nazis were slaughtering millions. These hostile sentiments towards Jews in the U.S. probably felt all too familiar to the Jewish families who moved to Beacon in the 1910s and 20s. One may speculate that the founders chose to call themselves the Beacon Hebrew Alliance for this reason, as it must have felt necessary to establish a Jewish community here both for safety and to maintain their religious practice.

 

Religious Life

A thirteen year old boy wearing a yarmulke and a white tallis looks down at a bible in his hands. He is standing in front of a velvet curtain.
Stuart Ginsberg’s Bar Mitzvah, Dec 28, 1968, photo courtesy of Dr. Harold Ginsberg

For the first generations that were a part of BHA, being Jewish involved gathering weekly on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings for Shabbat meals and services; teaching children about Judaism; regularly giving back to the community through services and funds; keeping kosher; observing the Jewish holidays; and performing Jewish rituals for major life transitions such as births, b-mitzvahs, weddings, and deaths. The shul (ie. synagogue or temple), was the center of Jewish life in the Beacon community. Children grew up here, elders led services and taught the youth, major life events were celebrated, and life-long friendships were formed.

Stuart Ginsberg, son of long-time members Dr. Harold & Phyllis Ginsberg, and grandson and great-grandson of BHA founders Benjamin, Max & Bertha Ginsberg, recalls what it was like growing up in the community in the 1960s: “At home we kept kosher for much of the time... Of course we went to Hebrew School. We had big Seders every year, and people always came over for break fast [after Yom Kippur]. But, we were more or less an Americanized family. I would say that our religious upbringing was ‘Conservadox.’ That’s how it ended up being, looking back at it. It was only later... that I even knew there was a Reform movement. Our synagogue was what I thought Judaism was.”

Ginsberg was referring to Reform Judaism, which arose in the early 19th Century in Germany and later in the United States based on the philosophy that the religion should change and modernize with the times. Reform congregations relaxed or rejected many traditional Jewish laws and practices such as keeping kosher and not working on the Sabbath. In the U.S. the Reform movement was led by German Jews who had immigrated in the early 1800s and had mostly assimilated into Western European and American society.

When the later waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in the United States, they were willing to embrace many aspects of secular American culture, but they refused to let go of the Jewish laws and customs they had been practicing for millenia. In response to the Reform movement, these new immigrants, including BHA’s founders, instead embraced what is known as Conservative Judaism, in an effort to strike a middle road between Reform and Orthodox.

 

Rich Traditions

large family stands outside on a hot, sunny day. The photo is old and black and white.
Photo of the Ritter Family c. 1930, with BHA founders Jacob and Sarah Ritter and their children, photo courtesy of Frank Ritter, ritterphoto.com

The community at BHA, while not wealthy, was nevertheless rich in traditions and had great pride in being Jewish.

“My first memories were, as a pretty young kid, we would go to Friday night services,” says Beth Pearson, daughter of BHA members George & Evelyn Pearson and granddaughter of BHA founders Barnett & Esther Pearson. “The service was always upstairs in the beginning, as I recall in the sanctuary, and then we would go downstairs. I remember helping the ladies from the Sisterhood put out the food and the Oneg Shabbat… My favorite thing was the peanuts and raisins. I would sneak them. And it felt like another home.”

Karen Moses (nee Morgenstern), granddaughter of BHA members Dr. Louis & Miriam Rogen, and great-granddaughter of BHA founders Hyman & Rachel Pomeranz recalls a lovely tradition at Rosh Hashanah at BHA. “For Yom Kippur, we would go over to my grandparents’ house and have dinner, and then everybody would walk together to that long hill leading up to the synagogue (I think it goes by the [old] high school). As you were going up, the sun was setting, and… all the Jewish families would come out of the different streets, and everybody would join together to go up the hill to go into the synagogue. That’s a beautiful memory that I keep with me.”

 

Changes in Religious Practices at BHA

While Conservative Judaism wanted to hold onto its traditions, it was not impervious to changes in the secular society. One of the biggest of these was the movement for gender equality that arose with Second-wave Feminism in the 1960s. 

Judaism as it was practiced by the Conservative congregation at BHA, had strict divisions between the sexes. Only men were counted in a minyan, and only men could be called to the Torah. While women played a large role in the community in their capacity as homemakers, educators, fund-raisers, and participants in charitable causes, they were not allowed to perform in most religious rituals, be counted for minyans, or have bat mitzvahs when they came of age.

Two teenage girls stand to either side of a wooden lectern, where a large white Torah school is laid on it. They are on a bimah and light shines through a tall
Hebrew School students handle the Torah during the holiday of Simchat Torah, Fall 1997, photo courtesy of Ellen Pearson Gersh

The Conservative Movement began allowing girls to have bat mitzvahs starting in 1922, and it became a wide-spread practice by 1948. At BHA, the first bat mitzvah didn’t occur until 1965 with Karen Moses (then Morgenstern). 

Karen remembers this event, which was ushered in with little fanfare:

“I had a Friday night service, and I remember it was the Book of Ruth, because my English name is Karen Ruth… I did my little spiel about the Book of Ruth… But I was never allowed to read the Torah.

It’s very interesting, because I ended up at Oxford Circle Jewish Community Center in Philadelphia, and it was an egalitarian service, and girls were allowed to read and go up on the bimah… I have since read Torah, and I have since been on the bimah and doing a lot of things.” 

BHA’s current cantor Ellen Pearson Gersh also recollects the internal struggles at BHA to move towards more egalitarianism:

“I remember the time when the Conservative Movement said that women could be counted in a Minyan [in 1973], and it was up to each congregation to vote on it. I remember my father [George Pearson] getting into these conversations on the phone… of course he was a proponent for it… and there were a couple of the older men… who didn’t really want to count women. 

: A young boy is seated looking at a large Torah Scroll open in front of him. A woman in a prayer shawl stands across from him and is speaking to him.
Cantor Ellen Pearson Gersh shows the Torah to Abraham Spodek during Simchat Torah, Oct 1, 2016, photo courtesy of BHA

I remember my father saying, ‘My daughters come, and they sit there, especially my older daughter, davening, and they are invisible. THIS IS NOT ACCEPTABLE.’

He very rarely raised his voice. He was just very chill, and he was like, ‘We need to acknowledge that they’re part of this community.’”

Ellen’s older sister Beth Pearson adds, “At our synagogue, until the few old guys were no longer around, then it eventually changed. And I think that Beacon is a reflection of the movement in general, towards women becoming very active. Now even, in many places, more active than many men in Jewish ritual and Jewish life.”

After a decades long struggle, BHA did change its views on women, eventually hiring its first woman Rabbi, Carol Davidson, in 1989, and its first woman Cantor, Ellen Pearson Gersh in 2000.  While it took a long time, the extended debate over gender equality at BHA made a strong impression on many young women growing up at BHA, and in some cases defined their future religious lives and careers.

 

The Religious Practice and Community at BHA Today

BHA is still a member of the Conservative Movement, and is proud of its Jewish history and traditions, while also being open to new and diverse ways of davening and engaging with Torah.

An old woman with white hair and a bright red sweater is seated across from a group of small girls of various races. A table is behind them with a banner for a Blood drive and a man sitting at it.
Elder member Ellin Feld talks with some of the youngest members of BHA at a Blood Drive hosted by BHA in May 2013, photo courtesy of BHA

At BHA today, there are still weekly Friday night and Saturday Shabbat services, in which the community gathers together to eat, sing, daven, learn and read from Torah. Sometimes these services look very traditional, and sometimes they can look quite experimental, incorporating dance, drumming, meditation, and even hiking.

As for the congregation, it has really grown over the past ten years, with a large influx of young families and new Gen X and Millenial members joining with a tight knit group of long-time older members. The challenge, and the blessing, has been navigating the different needs of all the parts of the community. BHA’s Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek says the payoff of this work can be encapsulated in a beautiful moment of intergenerational connection: “I have this picture… of Zakai Alon, who is now 7 or 8 years old, at her baby naming… being held by Ellin Feld, who was 87 at that time… She is one of the pillars of the community who had connected with Zakai’s parents, and they had been at lunch at each other’s houses, and there was this real intergenerational friendship there, and it was beautiful.”

As for the future of BHA, Cantor Ellen Pearson Gersh says: “I hope that BHA will always be inclusive, welcoming and open… a place that recognizes all different aspects of Judaism … understanding that people have various paths to what resonates with them… in Judaism, in davening, in culture, and that we respect everyone’s, and treat everyone equally in that regard… We think of ‘L’dor Vador’ - we just keep passing these things down. That this was a place that nourished people, and kept going -- for 200 years!”

Do you have photos or other memorabilia that relate to BHA’s story? If so, please fill out this quick google form to let us know what you have. We will reach out to you to arrange to scan your photos or collect your artifacts. BHA’s Centennial programs are made possible, in part, with funding from the Sadie Jane Effron Cahn Beacon Hebrew Alliance Endowment of the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley.

A baby naming at BHA for Rachel and Alan Zollner’s daughter Hannah, c. 2003, Left to right: Rachel Zollner, Alan Zollner, and George Pearson in tefillin

 

References: 

“Reform Judaism,” Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Reform-Judaism

“UNITED STATES IMMIGRATION AND REFUGEE LAW, 1921–1980,” Holocaust Encyclopedia, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/united-states-immigration-and-refugee-law-1921-1980

“Conservative Judaism in the United States” by Shuly Rubin Schwartz, The Schalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, Jewish Women’s Archive, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/conservative-judaism-in-united-states

Mon, October 18 2021 12 Cheshvan 5782