One of the most wonderful things about the Beth Israel Center community is its diversity. Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Jew by Choice, non-Jewish loved one, gay, straight, multiple ethnicities—there are so many different characteristics that make up our BIC family. We also come from disparate religious backgrounds with distinctive identities. The multiplicity of our outlooks sharpens our learning and our studies, broadens our communal perspective and ultimately makes us wiser. It also helps us realize that the bonds that bring us together are very strong.
The ethos of our community is demonstrated in our sanctuary each and every week as a wide variety of people take on the responsibility for leading our worship. We have deep lists of people who actively lead our worship by leading our davening (praying) and leyning (reading from the Torah scroll) as well as in other ways. And those lists are growing longer all of the time as people take on the challenge of active participation/leadership, learning new skills no matter where they begin their journey. Perhaps they are having an Aliyah to the Torah for the first time, or they are reading Torah for the first time. Looking on the Bimah any particular Shabbat morning, the child who leads Adon Olam might practically be a professional, and the adult leading the Torah service might be the newbie. Our community is defined by your participation and growth, both in the sanctuary and beyond.
Each of us comes with his or her own story. Some come from observant homes, some from the opposite and some from in-between. Each story is unique and also the same, in that they have led us here. When I teach Tefilah (prayer) in the Talmud Torah, our students are often shocked to find out that at their age, I could not read Hebrew. In fact, I did not have a formal Jewish education growing up in Albany, NY. I try to impress upon them that no matter how uncomfortable they might be with Hebrew, how much they feel they do not know right now, anything is possible.
In High School I became part of a Reform Synagogue and have great friendships from my time in Youth Group, as well as fond memories of song sessions that were intense and often spiritually enriching. After graduating from the University at Albany, part of the SUNY system, I began my Rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College, the seminary of the Reform movement. It became clear that I longed for more traditional learning and observance that would only be possible through studies at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the primary seminary of the Conservative Movement. I try to meld the best of the two religious worlds that I come from in my rabbinate, mixing together the desire for personal meaning that so dominates the Reform movement with the concrete foundation in tradition of the Conservative movement.
While I am the Rabbi of Beth Israel Center, I am fortunate to share that title with my wife Rabbi Rebecca Ben-Gideon who is also our adult education consultant. Along with leading our adult learning program, she is Ima (Mom in Hebrew) to our three children, twin daughters Lena and Vered and son Noam, she has led the Conservative minyan at the UW Hillel, and she is currently the Head of the Madison Jewish Community Day School.
I wish that I could share with you my favorite teaching from Jewish tradition that captures exactly all of the richness of Beth Israel Center, but I can't. Jewish tradition is far too expansive and deep for only one teaching to be both that broad and that specific. Jewish tradition's intricacies match the complexity of modern life. It offers numerous ways to deepen and enrich your connections to your soul, your loved ones, your God and your community. Beth Israel Center is a community that encourages and celebrates each individual's journey to make Jewish tradition a part of their life. We offer opportunities to learn through our adult education and family education programs, not to mention our excellent Talmud Torah (Religious School for K-7) and communal sponsorship of Midrasha (Madison's Hebrew high school for 8th-12th grades). Beth Israel Center members give back to each other through our membership committees and to the greater community through a number of Tzedakah (social justice) projects like Meals on Wheels, a local men's shelter and others. Beth Israel Center is a great spiritual home for me, and could be for you as well.