“Temple Beth El has a long history of creating a congregation that reflects who we are, of creating a synagogue that meets the community members’ needs,” said Rabbi Rachel Kort, one of two staff rabbis at the Aliso Viejo-based congregation. She explained how Temple Beth El developed a Shabbat-based education program that helped students to learn hands-on lessons about Shabbat while bringing families into the building on Friday.
At the same time as the Shabbat Chai program started, the congregation became dually affiliated with the Reform and Conservative movements. One of a few congregations in the country that are affiliated with both movements, Temple Beth El “embraces the pluralism of the greater Jewish community within our congregation so we can provide a Jewish home for those who identify with either of these movements and for those who are just looking to connect and express their Jewish selves,” according to its website.
“We have two main stories that are unique,” added Rabbi K’vod Wieder, the other staff rabbi. “We’re moving forward in a collaborative and non-hierarchical way as co-rabbis with neither of us higher than the other. We partner with Cantor Natalie Young, Executive Director Bonni Pomush, the board and other lay leaders to create our future direction.”
While each of the two rabbis was ordained in a different stream of Judaism, both are full partners in the life of the congregation, providing pastoral care and spiritual counseling to everybody. As Rabbi Kort said, “We’re one community with multiple practices, and the rabbis embrace and embody those values.”
Rabbi Wieder explained that the rabbis are “trying to help the congregants articulate values important to them and values shared by both Reform and Conservative Jews.” That means making ritual accessible, looking at broader issues and keeping the approach both creative and grounded in tradition.
“Most of what we do has little to do with denominationalism,” Rabbi Kort said. “We have a successful, supportive, caring community – a Jewish home for people, a place to engage with the world about social justice and issues such as addiction and bullying, an environment that helps teens to navigate life and a venue for Jewish engagement about education.”
Rabbi Wieder added that the congregation “could not do a lot of things if it did not honor the collaborative aspect.” Lay leaders, he said, are committed to address the needs of the community to connect, making such programs as Jerusalem Shabbat possible.
“The goal is to create a synagogue where partnership, respect and relationships are the focus of all that we’re doing,” Rabbi Kort said. “Our collaboration is rooted in Torah. We’ve studied texts from our tradition together as models for the partnership and shared them with the community. We serve as each other’s rabbis, colleagues, equals and friends.”
“People need to see and understand how this works to transcend the denominations,” Rabbi Wieder added.
The two rabbis, who have been working together for five years, emphasized that there would be “new structures and dynamic programming” along with acknowledgement of the shared history of the congregation. After the High Holy Days, there will be opportunities to join small groups for meaningful discussions, aiming to make meaningful connections. In December there will be a scholar-in-residence program celebrating a book by the late Founding Rabbi Allen Krause about the role of Southern rabbis in the civil rights movement, followed by a social justice campaign. Other plans include participatory musical programs led by Cantor Young, “a premier composer, songleader and clergy colleague,” emphasizing that Temple Beth El is a “musically driven, joyful place to pray.”
Rabbi Kort concluded, “We have developed a special relationship that makes us all stronger. We are truly one community with different options for worship services, and there is so much strength in not doing this alone.”