At the beginning of February, I spent the weekend at OSRUI with our 5th and 6th graders at an annual retreat for small congregations in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. One of the teens we hired to serve as a counselor for the kids (along with our own Emily Birz) was a high school senior from my hometown, Janesville, WI. When I asked the young man which high school, and then told him I too attended Janesville Craig, he thought I was pulling his leg. (Breaking out into the school fight song helped to convince him it was true!). As the only Jewish kid his age in the entire school system (the same experience I had there), he was incredulous that a rabbi could have risen out of that same environment many decades ago.
But, to us here at Beth Hillel, it’s not so surprising. In a few weeks, during the culmination of our 90th anniversary observances at Beth Hillel, we will be celebrating our wonderful community, and a big part of it will be focusing on the strong Jewish identities that a small Jewish community like ours can build. Your presence at our March 20th “A House for All People” gala dinner at “Circa on Seventh” and some other activities that will happen during the morning at BHT, along with the school’s Purim Carnival, will shine a spotlight on the Jewishly committed young adults who have grown out of our congregation and the crucial role that Beth Hillel played in their lives.
The highlight of this sharing will come from three rabbis, Rabbis Dan Selsberg, Benjy Bar-Lev and Monica (Meyer) Kleinman who rose out of our congregation to serve the Jewish people as congregational rabbis. The mere fact that they are choosing to be with us and give up time with their own congregations and families to do so, says a great deal about how much they value Beth Hillel. Their bios are found elsewhere in this newsletter, and by reading them, you will discover a bit about how BHT influenced their Jewish lives and the choice to become rabbis. Much more will be shared when they headline the March 20th evening event. But, as remarkable as it is that Beth Hillel has seen 3 rabbis come from its ranks, our trio of rabbis still does not tell the whole story.
In preparing for the March 20 celebrations, we have also reached out (and we are greatly indebted to Esther Letven and our BSBH 8-9 grade students in the Midrasha Oral History elective for this effort) to young adults who are in college or beyond, to ask them to reflect on the role that Beth Hillel played in their Jewish identities and to share about their Jewish lives as they step out on their own into the world. Here, too, we are blessed to have a group of college age and “20 somethings” who credit Beth Hillel with their positive Jewish identities, for inspiring them to live and act as Jews in the world, and, for several, even leading them to jobs and careers within the Jewish community. Many speak of their social relationships and extra-curricular choices as having been highly influenced by BHT and the opportunities afforded them here to learn, to socialize with Jewish youth both within and beyond BHT, to go to Jewish camp and youth group, on trips to Israel, and to internships in Jewish settings.
Some may not be active in Jewish life right now, but think back fondly on their time at BHT and believe they will want to pass on what they had to the next generation. This too says a great deal about who we are as a Jewish community and the importance of what we do at BHT.
Creating positive and joyous, meaningful and relevant Jewish experiences for our youth and adults and making people feel good about what happens when they are within the walls of our synagogue has always been a priority for me personally, and it is what motivates our school staff and lay leaders as well. It is gratifying to have those who have left our community confirm that we have succeeded in that endeavor many times over. Growing and shaping Jews who engage in Jewish life and build meaning in their lives through the practice of Judaism and on the foundation of Jewish values should make us very proud of what we are doing here at Beth Hillel. It is truly something to celebrate. Join us on March 20. And if you have a story to share about what Beth Hillel has meant in YOUR life, please share comment below.