Temple Beth El, a Conservative synagogue that’s celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, looks small because it sits on seven acres of prime real estate in an attractive, upper middle-class area of Rochester, N.Y.
Walking from the rear parking area to the front entrance, you hear voices of children of different ages. It’s late Friday afternoon and there’s a flurry to get seats and tables ready for the evening prayers and pot luck dinner afterward.
Since it’s been such a fine summer, it was decided that the services should be held in the flagstoned garden off the lobby, although this seemed to be open to disagreement, since the heat might be unbearable for many. But someone had to make a decision, and the outdoors won. This pot luck meal isn’t a single, annual event. Shabbat dinners are often served after prayers, and at times, lunch, too.
Taking time out of her busy schedule, the executive director, Debbie Zeger, walks us to her office past vitrines filled with mostly silver Jewish artifacts. Originally from Queens, N.Y., she married a man from Rochester, and has been with Temple Beth El for 27 years.
The Jewish population is about 20,000, and approximately 730 households are congregants. Temple Beth El is the largest Conservative synagogue in Rochester. The Reform synagogues are larger and the Orthodox synagogue is smaller.
Even with this somewhat small community, there are two minyans daily and a nursery and religious school and the synagogue is revamping its twice-weekly high school. There won’t be any desks, but pillows and bean bags, “so there’s more of a camp-like feeling and fun,” says Zeger.
Although very traditional, Temple Beth El must be doing everything right, since younger families are starting to attend services, mixing with the older generation who have been attending for decades.
From the hallway, I see the rabbi and a few seated members already in the garden. It’s early, but the rabbi is behind the table that acts as a bimah for the night services. The Chilean-born rabbi has been in Rochester for three years, after spending time at synagogues in Detroit and San Antonio. He and an associate prepare the children for their bar and bat mitzvahs.
A “must do” on Zeger’s list is to obtain the history of the number of Torahs they have and where they got them.
The chapel is small, seating only 100 people, and has a simple decor. The larger space is more adorned with an interesting bimah and stained glass windows. “We are refurbishing the sanctuary. The seats are 50 years old and certainly need reupholstering,” Zeger says.
What makes Temple Beth El so progressive is its attitude to those with alternative lifestyles, encouraging them to join and making them welcome.
The rabbi believes in the “wow” factor, and this has certainly been observed throughout the year. “For Purim, we had a Star Wars format,” Zeger says. “Last year we had an acrobatic group. For Chanukah we hired a DJ for the music.”
To show how on the mark they are, there was a most successful beer tasting with a beer called HE BREW.
They have a second seder at Passover, and over 200 members show up. “It has amazed us that so many were interested. There are kosher food restaurants that cater and some people volunteer and make some dishes,” Zeger says.
Among other things, the synagogue offers a bus for the elderly and for those with disabilities.
“We are trying to be more inclusive. We have to be relevant. We have babysitters for the little ones and an area where they can be entertained during services.
“It has been decided that there will be an area for the kids so they could be part of the services when they want to,” she said