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BHA Present & Future

05/24/2022 01:23:42 PM

May24

Anna Marcus

 A white horizontal banner hangs on a wall made of red bricks and translucent glass bricks behind it. There is a row of wooden log stumps standing up on their ends at the base of the building wall. The banner has a round logo with a green Tree in the center and text in red letters next to it reads, “Celebrating 100 Years of Jewish Community in Beacon.”
BHA’s Centennial banner hangs outside of the synagogue building near the fire pit, and the preschool play area. Photo: Anna Marcus, Sept 21, 2021

It’s hard to believe that only a year ago we launched the Beacon Hebrew Alliance’s Centennial programming. Speaking for myself, living through the COVID-19 pandemic has awakened me to the fragility of the world. Digging into BHA’s history, helped me to see how the Jewish community in Beacon has dealt with crises in the past, and remained resilient and flexible enough to rejuvenate itself again and again. Now as we make our way back to regular in-person gathering, in fits and starts, I hope that we remain mindful of our fragility, while pushing ourselves to rebuild community and be even more inclusive, open, and caring than ever. This means owning up to our vulnerability, staying realistic about our abilities, and yet still attempting to achieve our highest ideals.

BHA currently has 133 member families, up six from last year. While Masa enrollment has gone down during the pandemic, BHA’s preschool program is at capacity; and 30 adults have attended BHA’s formal adult education programs this year along with dozens more attending Rabbi Brent’s weekly Torah portion conversations on Friday evenings. BHA’s calendar is robust and filled with programs for everyone of every age, gender, and level of familiarity with religious texts and traditions. Some programs are offered in-person only, but many are also streamed live on their Facebook page or over Zoom, and cataloged on Youtube.

To close out our Centennial year series of monthly blog posts, I have provided excerpts below from an oral history interview I did with Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek in July 2021 to paint a picture of BHA today, and his hopes for its future.

 

A selfie photo taken on top of a mountain with dark green conifer trees and bald rocks. The man is standing and smiling at the camera. He is wearing a black beanie that is frosted, and a blue shell jacket with a darker blue fleece lining. His skin is olive colored, and he has light gray stubble where a beard would be.
Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek on a late winter hike. Photo: Brent Chaim Spodek, March 31, 2022

Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek: Meeting the needs of BHA and American Jewish people in this day

AM: What aspects of the community at BHA seem unique and special to you?

Rabbi Brent: On an individual level everyone is inherently unique. On a community level we see some patterns at BHA that are similar to lots of other communities and synagogues.

Part of what makes BHA unique is our age and our growth. Larger patterns within Jewish communities, certainly Conservative ones, point towards a certain decline. Mainstream religion is generally speaking an aging population. The Conservative movement hasn't made inroads into a younger population.

BHA's growth over the past decade has been because we have a unique position of simultaneously honoring and celebrating our heritage (both in Judaism and in BHA in particular), while recognizing that our goal is not to preserve the past - we are not the Jewish museum. Our purpose is to help people use and mobilize the Jewish traditions as a resource in our own growth and development, in ways that I think speak to generations that are a little bit further removed from the immigrant experience.

AM: Where do you see BHA situated in the myriad of ways Judaism is practiced in this country. Why do we still identify with the Conservative movement at BHA? 

Rabbi Brent: As far as the movement piece of it, there is a question of formal association, like the difference between being a liberal and a Democrat. As far as formal affiliation with the Conservative Movement, it's in our constitution, it's who we are. At various points the Board has questioned if we should drop the formal affiliation, and decided not to. The ideological part of it operates independent of that question of formal affiliation.

The central question for American Jews is: "How do we take our ancient legacy, and make it accessible to an American audience?" This is where some of the diversity of Jewish practice comes from.

The Conservative Movement has functionally said, “What we want to preserve from the tradition is the forms of prayer. We are not so worried about content or meaning, but what we want to preserve that looks and sounds like what we imagine our ancestors did but in a way that is understandable and comprehensible to our Gentile neighbors." You can see this in the architecture of our synagogue. Unlike a traditional synagogue, we have a bima (a stage) where the only way to stand on that stage is with your back to the ark, facing the audience. That is not anything like traditional Judaism, but it is American Protestant Judaism. No prewar rabbi would understand how you could turn your back on the Torah.

I’m much more inclined to focus on the spiritual work of our souls than I am concerned about preservation of our cultural legacy. I think in some ways, that is easier for someone of my generation - I was born in 1975 - because, enabled by sacrifices that my ancestors have made, I feel more or less at home in America. I can tolerate greater tension with “mainstream” Christian hegemony. 

A large group of adult hikers stand in front of a lake smiling and holding beverages. They look tired but happy. The lake water is reflecting a sunset, and there is a green tree lined hill coming down to the lake.
Participants in Rabbi Brent Spodek’s RISING - An Emek Adventures Hike celebrate the the end of their  journey at Surprise Lake Camp. Photographer unknown, Sept 22, 2019

 

We (the Jews) have become a lot more white in terms of privilege than we were one hundred years ago. America has changed-it's a lot more open to diversity than it was. This has opened up lots of things, some of which in the Jewish world are actually returns to much more traditional forms of Jewish practice. I think a lot of the things we do at BHA that are seen as “weird” or “out -there,” like praying in a forest, actually are only weird in the context of post-war American suburban Judaism. If Rabbi Nachman was transported out of the 18th century to the 21st century, I am willing to bet he would be a lot more comfortable with a bunch of people the forest trying to talk to God, then they would be with a bunch of people in suits and ties in straight rows, sitting and standing in unison.

Put differently, the things that seem new, are quite old, and the things that seem old-namely post-war American Judaism,-are actually relatively recent and probably ephemeral expressions of Judaism. They fit a particular need of post-war American Jewish immigrants, and those needs have changed.

In terms of BHA, part of our vision is that we are a laboratory. We are a pool of living waters in which to swim, not a precious heirloom we are trying to preserve. So we try different things. We've been lucky, trying things you've (Anna) led like movement-based prayer, or dance davenning. We’ve experimented with going out into the forest. We've experimented with doing programs with some of the Buddhist teachers in my life and in the community. God-willing we'll continue to experiment, knowing that the nature of experiment is that some things work and some things don't. 

Our role is first and foremost to mobilize the Jewish tradition to expand people’s hearts, to be better friends, people, husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, artists and teachers; to be better and to be more closely connected to the Divine. To open up the possibility of Divine presence or shefa, flowig through us. Figuring out how to do that for an American Jewish population, for all the particulars that that brings in terms of race, gender, class, literacy, Hebrew and Israel, is uncertain. We are living in a time of tremendous transformation in the Jewish world. The Jewish world that my grandchildren will inhabit will not bear much resemblance to the Jewish world my grandparents inhabited. And so we experiment, and God-willing some of our experiments will work and stick and continue to nourish people, and God-willing we will have the courage to look at the ones that didn't work and let them go.

AM: Have there been any up-sides to BHA moving to remote and outdoors since the pandemic?

Rabbi Brent: The downsides outweigh the upsides. Two of the biggest adaptations we made were moving online and moving outdoors. As far as moving online, one of the real pluses has been the ability of people who live geographically far, or are mobility-limited, to join in with things. We've had members joining from the West coast, from NYC, and as we've gotten set up and used to having cameras and streaming videos. It's been a real blessing to have people from farther away be able to be part of things. This has been particularly pronounced with some of the Adult Education classes. 

A class I taught on the Rambam in the spring (2021) was extraordinary. We had people joining the class from Germany, Toronto, California, and the ability for more people than we could ever possibly fit in my office at BHA being able to join, was incredible. I suspect moving forward we will continue doing stuff in a blended way for people to be able to join in-person and online.

The other upside of the pandemic, was we were able to move some of our programming outside in ways that really opened things up. Three come to mind: one, was the Menorah Meander. In the neighborhood where you and I live is the densest population of BHA members. We were able to have a meander from one house with a menorah to another. At each house we had latkes, hot cocoa, dreidels, and chocolate. The ability to be outside and moving around was really wonderful. It provided another way to connect with each other, rather than being in the basement of BHA.

People are sitting on a green lawn in lawn chairs and on blankets, facing a man who is on his knees speaking. Children run behind him on the lawn and an old white barn like building is in the background, with a covered pavilion on the right.
BHA Friday night Shabbat service at University Settlement Camp with Rabbi Brent Spodek and Cantor Ellen Gersh. Photographer unknown, May 24, 2021

The second thing that was really wonderful was being able to move our davenning, our Friday night prayer services, to University Settlement Camp. The city [of Beacon] has been great working with us, providing a spot outside where kids can run around, where there's a little shelter where we can duck in if it's raining. Being able to be outside is transformational. The setting matters. It’s a very different thing to open your heart to give thanks to the Creator for creation when you're looking at the mountains and trees.

Lastly, for me most powerfully, has been the opportunity to learn with kids, not just outside, but to really learn from the outdoors. One of the most rewarding things for me has been taking the kids out into the forest and learning a combination of back-country skills -- knot-tying, how to build a fire, how to build an emergency shelter -- and pairing that sort of hands-on learning with Torah-learning, which is a natural thing because the Torah was written outdoors. There are zero scenes in the Torah that take place inside a building, and similarly there are very few scenes in the Zohar that take place in a building and none that take place in a synagogue. So the opportunity to learn Torah with kids in a setting from which the Torah emerged, opened up incredible conversations with the kids about their own hearts and their own ambitions and needs for growth that were just amazing. So those have been some of the real upsides of this situation, that obviously has had plenty of downsides.

Kids wearing life jackets sit on a square shaped floating dock that has a hole in the center. The float is in the middle of a pond, and there is a rope pulley system to move it across the water. A man is standing with his back to the camera and operating the rope pulley. The pond is surrounded by trees and the sky is cloudy.
Masa students learn about the ecology of Fahnestock State Park on a camping trip organized by Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek. Photo: Jesse Lunin-Pack, May 10, 2021

AM: What do you hope BHA will be like one hundred years from now?

Rabbi Brent: I hope that BHA will be here in one hundred years, and that's not a given. Small synagogues like ours close all the time. So my hope is that we exist. Beyond that, I hope that there are people invested in BHA existing one hundred years from now because BHA is meeting their needs. I hope that BHA continues to be evermore a place that recognizes the flow of Divine energy. In the same way that we change and grow as individuals, we change and grow as a people and we change and grow as a community. From where we stand now, compared to the way we were one hundred years ago, our understandong of gender and gender relations, and the way we understand relations between Jews and non-Jews is radically different.   Better or worse are a matter of perspective, but things are undeniably different. There was a time not too long ago when if a Jewish person married a non-Jewish person their parents would sit Shiva for them as though they had died. Thank God we don't do that anymore, but part of not doing that anymore is recognizing we respond to where we are, not to where we were.

As the Psalms say: "This is the day that the Holy One has made. Rejoice and be glad in it." Not yesterday, not some other day in the future, but this actual day with these actual people. I think BHA is at its strongest, and Judaism is at its strongest, when it responds to the needs of the people on this day. I hope one hundred years hence, BHA will be responding to the needs of the people on that day, but I can't possibly know what those will be.

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Mark your calendars now for BHA’s 100 Year Birthday Bash Picnic on September 11, 2022 at Long Dock Park from 12-3pm! You can access the Jewish Beacon History Walk anytime by downloading it to your phone from the website.

La dor va dor and l’chaim!

The BHA Centennial Programs are made possible, in part, by the Irving and Gloria Schlossberg Family Fund and the Sadie Jane Effron Cahn Beacon Hebrew Alliance Endowment of the Community Foundations of the Hudson Valley.

Thu, July 7 2022 8 Tammuz 5782