By Stacey Dresner
FLORENCE – Beit Ahavah: The Reform Synagogue of Greater Northampton will observe its 20th year with a “Beit Ahaversary” celebration on May 12.
The event, to be held from 7-10 p.m. at Mill 180 Park in Easthampton will feature a short havdallah service, silent auction, and dessert and dancing to the music of Klezamir.
“Beit Ahavah means ‘the House of Love’ – and although it was founded with three profound Jewish principles about love in mind (to love your neighbor as yourself, to love God with all your heart, and to love the stranger for we were once strangers), the congregation proudly calls itself ‘the Love Shack’ – and dances joyously together whenever the B-52’s song by that name is played by a DJ!” said Rabbi Riqi Kosovske. “I can’t wait to hear the awesome Klezamir band cover this song at our May 12th community celebration at Mill180Park!”
The celebration will honor Beit Ahavah’s founder and first president Judy Goldman. It was in Goldman’s living room 20 year ago that the idea to start a new Reform synagogue in Northampton was hatched.
“Beit Ahavah came from a strong desire for a progressive Reform congregation to be radically inclusive, warm and welcoming, and with spiritually uplifting music, community and learning,” said Rabbi Riqi. “It was founded from Judy Goldman and Sheldon Snodgrass’s living room and has radically retained that feeling of being in their beautiful, warm living room – we partner to share sacred space in the Florence Congregational Church, maintain an intimate connection with members, and feel the inspiring Sojourner Truth statue is part of our ‘front yard.’”
“I’m looking forward to honoring Judy for the ways she guides this community still from the bedrock she established at the start”, the rabbi added. “When she enters the room, a warm and deeply moving spirituality fills the space. And a lot of love.”
Robert Harris, who serves as co-president of Beit Ahavah with Stephanie Pick, says he joined the congregation about a year after it was launched. At the time he was looking for a religious school for his young daughter.
“The initial group of people included a number of families who wanted to get involved in the religious education piece. And at that time there were fewer options than exist in the Northampton area now,” he recalled.
So how do you start a new synagogue?
“It’s not easy,” Harris laughed. “First of all you have to find a place to meet. We were kind of homeless for a year or so. But for quite a while now we have rented space from the congregation church in Florence.”
Beit Ahavah uses a portable ark that is wheeled into the building’s sanctuary for Beit Ahavah religious services and has created its own “sacred space” – offices on the church’s second floor.
At the beginning, Judy Goldman’s father, Rabbi Jerry Goldman, led services for Beit Ahavah on a volunteer basis. Then a succession of rabbis served for limited periods of time, until Rabbi Riqi came onboard as full-time rabbi.
“It took a while to find the right match,” Harris said.
Beit Ahavah celebrated Rabbi Riqi’s 10th anniversary at the shul in May of 2017 with a community-wide service that featured the musical group Nava Tehila and a panel discussion on women in the rabbinate.
“She’s a good fit for Northampton,” Harris said. “She’s very progressive in her thinking. She is very open to all sorts of different people and programs. With interfaith families and non-Jews that are very active, I think we are the only congregation in the area where non-Jewish family members can participate fully in every aspect of the synagogue life. Rabbi Riqi is very willing if we have a b’nai mitzvah event and if one of the family members is not Jewish to have them, nevertheless, on the bimah and participating in passing the torah. She is very open to that sort of thing. I think she is very creative in a lot of what she does.”
During Chanukah of 2012, Beit Ahavah dedicated its new portable ark and its solar-powered Ner Tamid with a Chanukah celebration and dance party.
Other milestones include purchasing Beit Ahavah’s own Torah, and the donation of another Torah from a synagogue that closed. That gift was facilitated by Stephanie Pick who had grown up attending that congregation, Agudas Achim in Fitchburg.
“I grew up in Fitchburg Mass. and the temple I grew up in, and that my mother belonged to, was closing at the same time Beit Ahavah was looking for a torah and so
I talked to my mother. She worked from her end and I worked from my end and we came up with this plan, and they donated it to us.”
Pick joined Beit Ahavah 15 years ago.
“I was looking for something. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but I found it,” she laughed. “Part of what I like is that it is smaller and very personal, and that people can really craft their experience to meet their needs rather than having it more prescribed for them. Which works for me… For me what is most important about Beit Ahavah is being part of a community that comes together for a shared purpose although our purposes may be unique. There’s room to do that.”
Today Beit Ahavah has around 85 member families, and the small community is a diverse one, with young families with young children, seniors, interfaith families and a number of members from the LBGTQ community.
“As a president of the congregation I hope to see it grow bigger because that makes things easier in terms of finances and volunteers,” Harris said. “I can’t imagine that we would ever have 200 families, but if you offered me an extra 50 tomorrow, I’d take it.”
The synagogue recently did a “20 for 20” campaign – as in, let’s attract 20 new families for the 20th anniversary. And it succeeded.
“I think we succeeded because we made an effort to have more of a presence,” Harris said. “For the past several years we have really developed a very active Tot Shabbat program which created a lot of interest again with younger families. And and I would have to say, a lot of the openness and connection to the LGBTQ community has had an impact. We have a fairly big number of younger people coming from that experience who have been attracted to us.”
“A lot has changed and evolved in the Valley in these years,.” Rabbi Riqi said, “and I feel Beit Ahavah’s early presence helped push the boundaries on so many issues in the Jewish community that are now becoming the norms.”
CAP: Members of Beit Ahavah and Florence Congregational Church, including Rabbi Riqi Kosovske, kneeling, packed 202 water filters in 18 duffle bags en route to Puerto Rico last October after Hurricane Maria.