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Small Congregations: A Temple Revives in a Funeral Home
by Debby Waldman

After I heard that my congregation was considering renting space from our local Chevra Kadisha, I wasn’t sure whether to rejoice or mourn. I remember thinking, “I hope this isn’t an awful omen—the dying congregation moving into the Jewish funeral home.”

To be fair, Temple Beth Ora wasn’t dying. But we weren’t exactly flourishing, either. In the spring of 2007, 28 years after a handful of Jewish families decided to establish a Reform presence in Edmonton, Alberta, Beth Ora had about 85 families. Edmonton’s population had grown by more than 50 percent over the past three decades to more than 700,000 people. But our temple wasn’t in a great position to attract new members: our full-time rabbi, who’d served the congregation for 11 years, was leaving to further her education. On top of that, we were losing our home. Since 1980, Beth Ora had rented space in Edmonton’s Jewish Community Centre, a multipurpose building with stunning views of the city’s North Saskatchewan River valley. But the aging building needed work. In Alberta’s booming economy, it made more sense for the Jewish federation to sell and build elsewhere. In the interim, the congregation had to find new space. But where?

The Chevra Kadisha’s home, the 1950s-era Chesed Shel Emeth, is an unassuming-looking brick-and-wood structure occupying a small slice of no-man’s land between commercial and residential neighborhoods northwest of Edmonton’s downtown core. Its immediate neighbors include a union hall, a liquor shop, and a store that supplies parts for the appliance service industry. In other words, the surroundings outside the frosted glass windows of Chesed Shel Emeth’s sanctuary don’t come close to the inspiring vista we’d gazed upon from the Jewish Community Centre eight miles away: a deep ravine caressing a meandering river lined with poplar and birch trees and high bush cranberry shrubs that turned brilliant shades of gold, orange, and red in the fall.

Still, the interior, with its knotty-spruce ceiling, makes up for it. Light flows into the sanctuary from more than a dozen chandeliers crafted from large wooden Stars of David with frosted, hand-blown glass lights. During the day, additional light pours in from a skylight on a second-floor common room overlooking the sanctuary. During funerals, the room is used for the cohanim, who are prohibited by Jewish law from being in the same room with the deceased unless it is a close relative.

The Chevra oversees between 35 and 40 funerals a year. Most used to take place at Chesed Shel Emeth, but these days more families are choosing to hold funerals in the Chevra’s expanded chapel at the Jewish cemetery nearly 10 miles away. The deceased are still prepared for burial at Chesed Shel Emeth, and a shomer, who keeps watch over the body, is accommodated in a separate space. Once a year Chevra members sew tahrihim, or shrouds, in the building. The executive board meets there regularly. The space is not used the rest of the time, which is most of the time.

“Over the years I’d always looked at this place and lamented how empty it was, and how little use it got,” says Marshall Hundert, a long-time Beth Ora member who volunteered to head up the Building Search Committee in late summer 2007, after the Jewish federation had voted to sell the JCC. An urban planner, Hundert scoured the city for possible rental space at community league halls, churches, and public and Catholic schools. None had enough room to accommodate the full scope of our programs.

After the High Holidays in 2007, Hundert contacted the Chevra. He realized that some Beth Ora members might not feel comfortable worshiping, attending adult ed programs, or sending their children to Hebrew school in a place they’d previously entered only for funerals. But when he visited the building to review its potential as a home for the congregation, he saw it in a completely new light. So did the Board members he brought with him a few months later.

“It was a big, empty sanctuary, and that confirmed for me that it’s spiritual, and it’s a place of Jewish worship,” Hundert says. “I brought the Board here on a Sunday morning in January, and the room was really lit up with the sun pouring in. It’s a beautiful chapel with all the wood in there, and the soft color. Once everybody saw it, once they stood up in front, they could tell it was a shul. If anybody on the Board was questioning the choice of space, that visit changed their minds.”

The Chevra’s members come from Edmonton’s Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform synagogues. (The city’s Jewish community, which numbers between 5,000 and 6,000, also has an ultra-Orthodox Kollel and a Chabad.) Chevra President Harry Silverman, who belongs to the Orthodox shul, thought Beth Ora’s proposed move was an excellent idea. “Our executive board and members discussed that this would be a good example for the rest of the community, to see two organizations that could work together for the betterment of the community,” he recalls. Equally important, he added, “It gives the building life.”

With an accepted proposal, Silverman and his executive board consulted with Edmonton’s equally supportive rabbis. Their chief requests were to remove the sifrei Torah (scrolls) from the ark and leave the ark open during funeral services to ensure mourners that, in keeping with Jewish law, the Torah would not be in the same room with the deceased. Hundert went one step further: he had wheels installed on Beth Ora’s Torah table, which sits in front of the first pews in the sanctuary. During a funeral it would now be easier to move the table out of the way to make room for the casket.

Hundert negotiated a five-year lease with another five-year option. Built into the lease were plans to renovate the building’s second floor into a kitchen, a classroom, and office space. These plans fell nicely into place in the spring of 2008.

But Beth Ora was still without a full-time rabbi—someone who could offer the community leadership, consistency, and growth potential.

Despite a search from the fall of 2006 until halfway through 2007, finding someone to come to what many considered a prairie outpost in western Canada was proving to be a challenge. It had taken a local Conservative shul more than six years to fill the position when their rabbi had left in the mid-1990s.

Shortly before the High Holidays in 2007, we were blessed to find a visiting rabbi, Zari Weiss of Seattle. The connection she made with congregants was so strong, we extended an invitation for her to lead services once a month. Cantor David Mannes, an Edmontonian and graduate of the cantorial certification program at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, also conducted services, as did our strong, dedicated core of lay leaders.

Then, in late spring of 2008, we made just the right shidduch, with Rabbi Carmit Harari. The daughter of Reform rabbis, she was born and raised in Israel, but from age 13 on she’d lived in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. She had grown up in small congregations. She wasn’t afraid of cold weather. Even better, she felt immediately at home with Beth Ora’s members.

“There was this easiness about the congregation,” she says. “I felt like I just fit in here. People welcomed me with open arms. I [also saw that] I could bring my own experiences. We’d be b’sheret (destined to be together).”

Rabbi Harari’s first impression of the sanctuary in Chesed Shel Emeth was that it was very pretty and classic-looking. It wasn’t until September, when she attended the Chanukat Bayit, the dedication Shabbat service, that she realized what a change it would be for her new congregants to worship not in a space shared with aerobics classes, yoga sessions, and organizations affiliated with the Jewish federation, but in a building that had been erected for religious rituals—albeit rituals that many people preferred not to think about.

“It got me thinking about the amazing partnership that we seem to have created, and the beautiful opportunity for education that it represented about the cycle of life,” Rabbi Harari says. “Just as we mourn losses in this new space, we can also celebrate joyous occasions and experiences.”

One of the first joyous occasions was a Torah march on a hot, sunny day in mid-August. Nearly 50 members of Beth Ora and the Chevra Kadisha gathered at the JCC and took turns marching one of the congregation’s three sifrei Torah 62 blocks to Chesed Shel Emeth. (The other two scrolls were transported by car.)

The following month, more than 200 worshippers attended the dedication Shabbat service. Guests included leaders of other institutions in Edmonton’s Jewish and interfaith communities, and members of other Jewish congregations in the city.

Two days after that service, the temple’s Beit Sefer (Hebew school) reconvened for the first time since the previous June. Because the renovations weren’t yet complete, the fourteen students, who ranged from five to twelve years old, gathered in the foyer outside the sanctuary with the teaching staff (of which I am one).

That day we were teaching the students about mezzuzot, an apt lesson for a week when we were beginning to settle into our new home. It was a busy morning, and few of us took much notice of the Chevra members coming in and out of the building.

After making mezzuzot, we adjourned to the front of the sanctuary to sing. We had just finished our first song when a Chevra member approached and politely asked us to please stop, because a mourning family was sitting at the back of the sanctuary.

Rabbi Weiss (who was still serving the congregation through the end of the month) took this as an opportunity to tell the students about the Chevra Kadisha. The children then had so many questions—“Why is it a mitzvah to wash someone who is deceased?” “Who performs the mitzvah?” “Are the deceased in the building near us?”—that by the time a Chevra member returned to say that the family had left, we had time for only one song before the school day ended.

“The children had so many excellent questions about things that we often don’t get a chance to address,” Rabbi Weiss says. “I remember one of the adults saying how important it was that they got to ask these questions—it made death seem a little less frightening. It was quite a moving and wonderful experience—for me as well as for them.”

Adjusting to a move is always a challenge. At Beth Ora we’re aware that our challenges are unique. We’re sharing our home—one of the last historic Jewish buildings in Edmonton—with members of the community who perform a holy ritual with no set timetable. That means we have to be flexible.

In the weeks leading up to the move, as word spread through the community about our new home and rabbi, the temple office began fielding an increasing number of requests for information about membership. As Hundert says, it’s a perfect example of the old “If you build it, they will come” philosophy.

Beth Ora President Felix Fridman agrees. “The reason we have a new shul and a new rabbi is because we’re a strong congregation. Now at Chesed Shel Emeth we have a new foundation.”

Debby Waldman grew up in Utica, New York, where her father, Elliot D. Waldman, was rabbi at Temple Emanu-El. She has lived in Edmonton, Canada since 1992.




 


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