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Temple Beth El Celebrates Centennial

Layout 1By Stacey Dresner

SPRINGFIELD – Craig Kazin has been wearing a commemorative rubber wristband bearing the words, “Honoring our Past, Building our Future” since planning for Temple Beth El’s 100 year anniversary began last year.

“I put it on when we first got them and I have not taken it off,” said Kazin.  “When I look down there it just reminds me that we are right at this cusp of what a great past we have had, but also what the future will bring…So while we are marking the centennial, we are really hopeful for the future.”

Temple Beth El will celebrate both its past – and look to its future – on Sunday, April 28 when it presents, “Soul to Soul: Yiddish and African-American Music Meet in a Celebration of Two Cultures.”

While TBE’s anniversary technically takes place in 2013, the celebration has been going on since last year, said TBE President and co-chair of the Centennial Celebration Paul Farkas.

“We are taking a year to think about the things that created us and the people who worked to make Temple Beth El what it is, and we have spent a year also to think about going forward into the next 100 years,” Farkas said.

TBE’s celebration got started last Simchat Torah when longtime ritual director Rev. David Aminia was honored.  The annual Sandi Kupperman Memorial Weekend and Past Presidents’ Dinner also marked the anniversary. Several other events will be held this year at TBE as part of the celebration (see box), culminating in a gala evening on Saturday, Nov. 2.

“Each event that we have in its own way captures a different feeling,” explained Kazin, chair of the concert and co-chair of the Centennial Celebration. “Music is a huge part of the congregation and that we owe to Cantor Morton Shames, so that appeals to a certain segment. We just really were mindful that not every programming activity is of interest to everyone. We have a lot of different interests and we thought we would touch on all of these important parts of our congregation.”

Cantor Morton ShamesCantor Emeritus Morton Shames helped bring “Soul to Soul,” a production of Folksbiene, the National Yiddish Theatre in New York City to TBE. The concert, directed by Zalmen Mlotek, and featuring both African-American and Jewish performers, is headlined by Elmore James, a Broadway veteran; singer-songwriter Tony Perry; and singer, actress, and Jewish songwriter Lisa Fishman. The performance features American standards, spirituals, Hebrew, and Yiddish songs, and will offer subtitles for Yiddish and Hebrew pieces.

The concert is a bit of a departure for TBE.

“People asked, ‘Why aren’t you doing what you are known for, which is these impressive choral presentations with many voices and sometimes instrumentation,” Kazin said. “That is how Morty made his mark.’”

But Cantor Shames wanted to feature a musical presentation that really celebrates TBE’s historic role in Springfield.

“We are celebrating our centennial and we wanted something really outstanding  — something that we wouldn’t normally be bringing to Springfield,” Cantor Shames said. “When I discovered the program “Soul to Soul” I thought what a wonderful presentation to bring to celebrate the centennial. Here are two minorities who have a similar history of persecution and both of their music reflects this and have the same qualities in so many instances. The music is representative of both their struggles, their joys, their sorrows. There was a common ground.”

Under Cantor Shames leadership, TBE has produced many concerts over the years, featuring a variety of music. “We have had programs with great opera singers, great jazz singers, with musical groups. We celebrated the music of the Holocaust and the music of the Sephardim. We have had, in our time, great rock services – a lot of different kind of music that I always wanted to bring to the congregation,” he said. “I think it is really incumbent upon someone like myself, a cantor, to expose the congregation to all kinds of music, as well as music that will bring the whole community together. We are hoping that with this production, we can encourage a great many in the black community to come and witness this performance.”


A Rich History

Rabbi Amy KatzTemple Beth El, formally founded in 1913, was the first Conservative Jewish synagogue in Western Massachusetts.  Headquartered at the Odd Fellows Hall on Pynchon Street, the congregation first held large services and events at the Springfield Municipal Auditorium.  The congregation’s first temple on Fort Pleasant Avenue was dedicated in 1918.  With the shift in the Jewish population, Beth El moved to its current location on Dickinson Street, breaking ground in 1952 for the building that was designed by noted architect Percival Goodman of New York. The new building was dedicated in 1953. In 1965, a fire destroyed the synagogue’s sanctuary and auditorium – the cause of which was never discovered — but the congregation rebuilt and rededicated the building in 1967.

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz praised the congregation’s strength and resilience.

“The building of our synagogue, moving to the border of Longmeadow, identifying a world renowned architect to design the building, gives you an example of the American Jewish community at the time – they were here, they were strong and they wanted everyone to know it,” Rabbi Katz said. “So they built a magnificent edifice.  Of course the fire was devastating but the community rallied and rebuilt. They didn’t let something like the fire allow the congregation suffer.”

Rabbi Katz, who joined the congregation in 2008 is just one in a long line of noted clergy who have served Temple Beth El over the years.

Rabbi Samuel Price was installed as the congregation’s first spiritual leader in 1918 and retired in 1946, the year Rabbi Naphtali Frishberg joined the temple. Rabbi Eliezer A. Levi succeeded Frishberg in 1950. Cantor Morton Shames was hired in 1955 and Rabbi Samuel Dresner joined the congregation in 1956. Cantor Shames retired in 1999 after serving for 45 years and serves as cantor emeritus. Rabbi Herbert Schwartz, who came to Beth El in 1983, served as spiritual leader for 25 years before retiring in 2008. The congregtion is now led by Rabbi Katz and Cantor Elise Barber, who succeeded Cantor Steven Berke.

“We have been blessed,” Kazin said. “The first rabbi that I can remember is Rabbi Dresner and that was in the 1960s. And I think the rabbinate was very different back then. But to a person, we have been blessed to have very intelligent rabbis – thinkers, people who tested how we were going to be Jews in the modern world. And I think it has really been capped off by Rabbi Amy Katz.” .”now.”

The same year that Rabbi Katz arrived in Springfield, Temple Beth El merged with Congregation B’nai Jacob after two years of discussion.

The same year that Rabbi Katz arrived in Springfield, Temple Beth El merged with Congregation B’nai Jacob after two years of discussion.

B’nai Jacob was founded in Springfield in 1891, initially as an Orthodox congregation. In 1963, the synagogue relocated to Longmeadow following the shift in Jewish population, and joined the Conservative Jewish movement in 1968.

Today, the merged congregation has 600 family units.

“My perspective is only modern —  I don’t know what was done in this community in the 1920s, 30s, 40s —  but I will tell you that the seamless and smooth merger of B’nai Jacob and Beth El really was extraordinary,” Rabbit Katz said.  “That happened before I came. By the time I came the heavy lifting was done and I got to blow out the candles. It is extraordinary, because lots of congregations at this time are really struggling but they can’t figure out how to get themselves out of it. We were dealing with a community that is shrinking, and we merged and are stronger than we were.

“It is not that everything at Beth El is perfect, we have our financial concerns like any other 21st century congregation, “ Rabbi Katz continued, “but we have figured out how to make things happen and I am very proud of the congregation for that.”

Even the youngest members of the congregation are getting into the act.

Students at TBE’s Sandi Kupperman Learning Center (SKLC) have been spending part of the year writing essays about TBE and those messages will go into a centennial time capsule.

“We wanted to get the kids involved in the project, “ said Tina Rubin, chair of the time capsule project. “We talked to the kids through the Hebrew school and they wrote down what they feel it is like to be Jewish at this day and time.”

Older students at SKLC have been collecting statements from older members of the congregation about the history of the synagogue over the years and those oral histories will be included in the capsule along with photos, and copies of the current Jewish Ledger and Springfield Republican.

The TBE time capsule – and the former B’nai Jacob time capsule which had been buried at its former home during its centennial several years ago — will be buried in front of Beth El on April 28 before the “Soul to Soul” concert.

Now poised to go into its next 100 years, Farkas said that Temple Beth El has several goals, like, “Continuing our record of excellence in terms of religious services, education and community participation. Dealing with the changing demographics of our community is a real issue for us. The demographics here are not favorable for any synagogue in Western Mass now, certainly not the Springfield area. We want to continue to draw in our young people to our religion and our synagogue and to engage them. Another goal is welcoming non-traditional couples — conversion students, gay couples, intermarrieds – adjusting to the changing demographics.”

“When you think about how American Jewish life has changed in the last 100 years, it is really extraordinary to think about what Beth El was, and what it is and what we are growing into being,” added Rabbi Katz.  “There are a lot of synagogues that are very vulnerable and very fragile in these very difficult times, and Beth El is very strong and very vibrant. We have a lot to be really proud of.”



Temple  Beth El Timeline


1913- Temple Beth El founded and headquartered at Odd Fellows Hall on Pynchon Street; first rabbi, Rabbi Samuel Price installed

1918 – A synagogue building purchased on Fort Pleasant Avenue and dedicated in December

1945 – A group of members call for TBE to become Reform, but survey of membership shows desire to remain Conservative

1946 – Rabbi Price retires and becomes Rabbi emeritus; Rabbi Naphtali Frishberg joins TBE

1950 – Rabbi Eliezer A. Levi joins TBE when Rabbi Frishberg departs

1955 – Cantor Morton Shames hired

1956 – Rabbi Samuel Dresner joins the congregation

1953 – The growing congregation moves to new facility on the present Dickinson Street campus

1963 – First group of Bat Mitzvah service

1965 – A fire destroys Temple Beth El’s sanctuary and auditorium

1968 – Facility rebuilt and rededicated

1970 – The congregation’s by-laws formally changed to recognize women as members with right to vote

1983 – Rabbi Herbert N. Schwartz hired

1990 – TBE joins with JCC in solidarity march for Sovet Jewry

1999 – Learning center renamed The Sandi Kupperman Learning Center

2001- Cantor Shames retires and named Cantor Emeritus

2008- Rabbi Schwartz retires after 25 years and named rabbi emeritus

2008 – Temple Beth El merges with Congregation B’nai Jacob

2008 – Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz hired

2013 – TBE Centennial celebrated

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