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Conservative shuls merge to create new congregation

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Kehillat Beth Israel boasts a new, more accessible low-rise bimah
Kehillat Beth Israel boasts a new, more accessible low-rise bimah

OTTAWA – Following last June’s official vote to amalgamate and a number of months of gradual consolidation, Ottawa’s two largest Conservative congregations will soon be known by the new name of Kehillat Beth Israel.

The name of the combined congregation was chosen to reflect and incorporate the past of both groups while also being “new” and representing the cohesive congregation that has emerged.

Congregation Agudath Israel and Congregation Beth Shalom will each have a part of its original name, joined by the word “Kehillat,” meaning “community of.” A committee tasked with naming the “new” synagogue canvassed all members by survey and received 420 responses, of which 77 per cent preferred Beth Israel.

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Kehillat Beth Israel, located in the synagogue formerly known as Congregation Agudath Israel, is fully egalitarian and affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. The combined membership, allowing for some overlap in terms of people who may have been members of one congregation and associate members of the other, is expected to be approximately 800 families, which will make it one of North America’s larger Conservative congregations.

The physical requirements, as well as the spiritual needs, of the congregation are also being addressed.

“As we got closer to amalgamation, the discussion shifted to addressing the needs of physically challenged and our older congregants who were having trouble navigating the bimah in order to have an aliyah,” said Stuart McCarthy, co-president of Kehillat Beth Israel, along with Lorne Goldstein.

“By creating a low-rise bimah, more central to the congregation and turning the front several rows of seats inward to face the sides of the bimah, and adding a ramp, we accomplished all goals and inaugurated it during Jewish Disabilities Awareness Month in February,” he added.

“This was done on a very tight budget, with a crew of about a half-dozen congregants volunteering their time, the services of a carpenter and the donation of some of the materials,” he said. “We are very proud to have the first fully accessible bimah in Ottawa.”

Clergy for the new congregation will also employ the concept of “yours, mine and ours.”

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Cantor Daniel Benlolo from Congregation Beth Shalom and Rabbi Deborah Zuker of Congregation Agudath Israel – whose position deals with outreach to young families – will soon be joined by Rabbi Eytan Kenter, who was recently chosen to become senior rabbi of the newly amalgamated congregation and who will arrive in Ottawa at the beginning of July along with his wife, Staci Zemlak-Kenter, and their young son, Boaz.

Rabbi Kenter, a graduate of Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Davidson School of Jewish Education, grew up in Westchester, N.Y., and has been associate rabbi and chief learning officer of Congregation B’nai Torah in Atlanta for the past seven years.