A Spokane chavurah, Havurat Shabbat, is working to establish a second congregation in Spokane, eastern Washington’s largest city.
The chavurah, which has been meeting formally for approximately seven years, is preparing an application to submit to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, which would give the organization official congregational status and would align it with Reform Judaism.
Currently, the only formally recognized congregation in Spokane is Temple Beth Shalom (TBS), which is affiliated with the Conservative movement. Temple Beth Shalom was established in 1966 as the result of a merger of Temple Emanu-El, a Reform congregation established in 1891 by German Jews, and Knesseth Israel, a congregation that was established by Orthodox Jewish settlers in 1901.
Temple Beth Shalom has the city’s only synagogue, a preschool, day school (serving children from kindergarten through grade seven), weekly Hebrew school and weekly high school classes for post–Bar and Bat Mitzvah students as well as a variety of classes for adults. The most recent addition to Temple Beth Shalom is its 12,000-square-foot education center, which opened its doors in 1998.
The only organized Jewish alternative to Temple Beth Shalom in Spokane is Havurat Shabbat, which has been meeting in members’ homes and at the Unitarian Church to commemorate and celebrate Shabbat, Havdalah, Jewish holidays and lifecycle events such as memorial services, brit milahs, naming ceremonies and B’nai Mitzvah. The chavurah, which has approximately 30 families, has a Sunday school and attracted 75 people to its last annual Passover seder. All of the chavurah’s events are led by lay leaders, as the group has no rabbi.
According to Debra Schultz, one of the principal organizers of the havurah, the reason the group has decided to submit an application to became a full-fledged congregation affiliated with the Reform movement is that “We want the support of an organized religious organization so that we can offer religious services, youth programs and adult education.” She adds that the chavurah will still be lead by members of the group but that they hope to have a rabbi come to Spokane about once a month to conduct services and teach. The group hopes that affiliating with the Reform movement “will help to give us direction and a structure to follow.”
Schultz also notes: “We don’t want to split the Jewish community. We just want to fill a void for Jewish families who haven’t found a Jewish alternative in Spokane that meets their needs, and whose family structure is different.” She doesn’t feel that the establishment of a second congregation in Spokane will adversely affect Temple Beth Shalom. Instead, she believes that a new Reform congregation will meet the needs of Jews on the fringes of the established Spokane Jewish community.
“I don’t see a huge number of people leaving TBS to join us, as we are meeting the needs of previously unaffiliated Jews and people who are in interfaith marriages. The people that we have in our group,” she continues, “who are unaffiliated or intermarried were not celebrating or practicing their faith with the Jewish community.” Schultz hopes that the establishment of a second congregation in Spokane will make the Jewish community even stronger. They look forward to cooperating with TBS and participating in joint initiatives with them in the future. The Conservative synagogue invited chavurah members to join them for High Holiday services last year.
Mark Silver, a fourth-generation Spokane resident and president of Temple Beth Shalom, notes that his synagogue has been the only game in town for over 35 years. And even though, according to Silver, during that time, TBS has tried to be “everything to everybody,” he realizes that his congregation might not be for everyone.
Temple Beth Shalom has approximately 275 families who are members, and Silver estimates that there are another 75 unaffiliated families in the Spokane area. “Some of our members are Orthodox and practice kashrut, some are Reform and the majority are Conservative,” he explains. He also points out that Temple Beth Shalom offers a wide variety of programming and educational opportunities designed to appeal to a broad range of Jewish interests including a very unique and very successful peer tutoring program for post Bar and Bat mitzvah kids. In this program, under the direction of Rabbi Jacob Izakson, Spokane teenagers help to train their younger peers for their B’nai Mitzvah.
“We’re very proud of our kids,” Silver notes, and points out that the community sends a healthy representation of youngsters to USY (United Synagogue Youth) conferences every year as well as to Camp Solomon Schecter. In addition, TBS continues a tradition that was initiated by Temple Emanu-El 60 years ago: Every March, Temple Beth Shalom organizes a huge annual Kosher dinner that is open to the public and features Jewish food and entertainment. Last year’s dinner attracted 2,800 people.
Regarding the possible establishment of a new congregation in the city, Silver he notes, “I do feel some sadness that there is a group of people who don’t feel they fit in for one reason for another. Spokane is not a very big community and it’s unfortunate we can’t meet the needs of the entire Jewish community.”
Silver, whose great-grandfather helped to found Knesseth Israel, adds, “The founding fathers of TBS worked very hard and through many lengthy debates to bring about the merger between Spokane’s first two congregations.
“There are obviously people who came here from other parts of the country and it might be difficult for them to feel comfortable in a traditional synagogue, as they may have been brought up in the Reform tradition.”
The chavurah, which has received positive encouragement and support from Rabbi David Fine, regional director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, has until December to file its application to become a Reform congregation.
David J. Litvak is freelance writer living in Nelson, B.C.