For some, it may seem like only yesterday. Yet it was just over 20 years ago that Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue’s charter members first ushered in the Jewish New Year together in Seattle.
Back in the summer of 1993, a rabbi and his family had just arrived in the Pacific Northwest from Los Angeles, with the hopes of integrating a more spiritual Jewish practice into an evolving Seattle Jewish community.
“I appealed largely to people who were not connected with synagogues,” said Rabbi Ted Falcon, Bet Alef’s founding rabbi. Falcon started out as a Reform rabbi in Los Angeles, but became engaged in spirituality in the 1970s.
“I got involved in spirituality and what was called ‘non-duality’ back then,” said Falcon. “In those days, synagogues were not interested in that, but one could pursue spiritual paths through psychology.”
He sought a degree in psychology and, in pursuit of Jewish spirituality, in 1976 began to teach. He then helped establish the Jewish Renewal congregation, Makom Ohr Shalom, in 1978 and served there until his family headed north to Seattle.
By the fall of 1993, Falcon had formed a group that called itself Bet Alef Meditational Synagogue, and the approximately 40 members celebrated as they opened the doors to their first High Holiday services.
“Bet Alef is a different kind of animal than what I had in Los Angeles,” Falcon said. “The first couple years were kind of shaky, but then it found its own way.”
Falcon found that, by and large, Bet Alef appealed to those who sought out other spiritual traditions, particularly attracting those who hadn’t known spirituality in their Jewish upbringing.
“The goal was to provide a spiritual alternative for those who the existing institutions were not as helpful as they might have been,” said Falcon. This sentiment resonated for Jews like Olivier BenHaim.
Currently the rabbi at Bet Alef as it celebrates the 20-year mark, BenHaim never thought he would be the spiritual leader of a meditative synagogue, let alone a rabbi. He laughed when he said he didn’t take a straight path to becoming a rabbi.
Having grown up in France, BenHaim had few Jewish options. With a background in modern Orthodoxy, he decided at 18 to make aliyah and study in Israel.
“Those were difficult years living in Israel,” said BenHaim. “There was a lot of political turmoil, and during the first intifada, I was called to the army. At the same time, in the middle of my service, Yitzhak Rabin was murdered.”
BenHaim saw Israel’s population fracture and divide, with many Israelis cheering on the stalemate of the peace process. With so much in flux around him, he experienced a spiritual crisis and decided to leave both Israel and Judaism behind.
“I met my wife, followed her back to the U.S., and decided to stay,” BenHaim said. The two moved to Seattle, at which point he began to embark upon a spiritual path through Buddhism.
“There was a Buddhist-Jewish dialogue at that time at the Museum of History and Industry,” BenHaim recalled. “A Buddhist nun was having a conversation with a Rabbi — Rabbi Ted — and he was talking about spirituality.”
BenHaim described experiencing an “Aha!” moment.
“I didn’t realize that this was part of our practice,” he said. He began to understand he didn’t have to go outside of Judaism to find spirituality, but instead, he could “come home.”
At that point, it became clear to BenHaim that Bet Alef was a good fit for him — perhaps too good a fit.
“Rabbi Ted started to involve me in different aspects of the synagogue,” BenHaim said. “I led services a couple times and thought ‘I could do this.’”
Bet Alef hired BenHaim to work in administration at the synagogue and, slowly but surely, he began to work his way up to taking over the reins as rabbi. “I got a BA and then MA in Jewish Studies at the Hebrew College of Boston and in those five years, I was Rabbi Ted’s apprentice,” said BenHaim. “I was running the office — so I learned to do the office side of things.” At the same time he was teaching classes and officiating at lifecycle events.
In June of 2009, BenHaim received his ordination. As Falcon retired, there was a six-month transition period, and then BenHaim took over officially as the rabbi in January 2010.
Looking at the changing tapestry of both the Seattle Jewish community and Bet Alef as a spiritual alternative to traditional Jewish paths, BenHaim and Falcon see the last 20 years as not only necessary then, but it continues to be necessary now.
“For me it’s really important that we are completely involved in the life of the Jewish community as another option,” said BenHaim. “We’re not competing with any other synagogue, we are an alternative.”
As Bet Alef grows and evolves, BenHaim hopes to continue to respond to the need for inclusiveness for adults and children alike.
“I want to make sure that there is a generation of Jewish kids that know that this is an option,” BenHaim said. “ It’s important for me to say that this is available and available at whatever age you find it.”
This is the second year Bet Alef is offering its Shabbat school, B’yachad, which allows for family learning together.
“This is not ‘drop your child off to Sunday school,’ but instead an opportunity to come in and learn together,” BenHaim said. “Once the family leaves, they can keep talking about what they learned. People are really connecting with that — it’s wonderful.”
Bet Alef celebrated its 20th anniversary by moving into a new physical space in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, as well as commissioning and dedicating a new ark, made by former Seattleite Gabriel Bass, a woodworking artist who now lives in Israel.