How One Synagogue is Making Newcomers Feel Welcome and Spiritually Fulfilled.
There is a sense of pride and satisfaction in considering oneself to be a Texan. That is a well-known fact that any native will tell you.
This story is about how one synagogue is making Jewish newcomers and their families – as well as natives and not so newcomers – consistently feel welcome and spiritually fulfilled.
When I relocated to Texas for business reasons in late January 1995, it took me a lot longer than most to feel the connection and sense of belonging that is the hallmark of this great state. In my case, there were many reasons for this delayed reaction, and the biggest factor was that I was born and raised in Tennessee, where my family has deep roots.
This departure from the only home I had known for nearly 30 years was shocking to say the least. I tend to compare my feelings at that time to how Dorothy must have felt in “The Wizard of Oz”. When I arrived in Texas, I only knew one person, a coworker who had relocated only the month before.
I went through the first period of adjustment, finding my way around and making friends fairly easily, but there was something missing. I didn’t quite know what it was until I met the man I was going to marry and took him to meet my sister, who was living in North Carolina at the time. During that visit, we happened to have lunch with one of my sister’s friends, who happened to be from the Dallas area.
When my sister’s friend asked my fiance what part of Dallas he was from, he answered … Duncanville, to which she immediately replied, You aren’t Jewish, are you?
This experience really summed up the sense of isolation I had felt since moving to the DFW area. I had lived in various places in the metroplex, attended services at various synagogues, but I had not lived in North Dallas, where the largest part of the Jewish community was and still is concentrated. There was a spiritual void in my life that I had not noticed, and it became apparent at that time.
Because my value system had stemmed from being raised in a strong and loving Jewish community in Tennessee, and the fact that my fiance, Jeff, had similar values, we agreed that our children would be raised in a Jewish home, understanding and appreciating their Jewish heritage.
After the wedding, it was time for us to decide which congregation would best support our interfaith family and still be within a reasonable driving distance.
That search brought us to Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington, Texas. Beth Shalom is a warm, welcoming congregation, with a relatively small size that gives it a more personal appeal. It is made up of a large percentage of interfaith families, where both parents are encouraged to take part in religious education and in worship. Beth Shalom is a member of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), a national organization which strongly supports family involvement.
Rabbi Emeretus, Ned Soltz, was a consistent source of strength and comfort, leading the congregation and its members through both good times and bad.
After some experimentation with synagogues in the Forth Worth and its surrounding areas and attending Shabbat services at Beth Shalom for a few years since my move, Jeff and I decided to look into membership.
The Executive Director was very understanding and supportive, suggesting opportunities for us to get together with other couples. As our family grew, she steered us to other couples with young children, with whom we turned out to have much in common. To this day, all of us, including our children, have become close friends.
Our children, very close in age, attend both Religious School and Tot Shabbat (services designed for very young children) together and they really enjoy having close friends to share in their Jewish upbringing.
The Beth Shalom community has become, for us, a wonderful oasis, providing a spiritual home where values such as social responsibility, respect for G-d and the Torah, and Gimilut Chasadim (deeds of loving kindness) are the fabric that binds its members together.
More than twenty five years ago, Beth Shalom held its first service in a small Unitarian Church in Arlington in 1980. Since then, it has moved many times and made many changes to its buildings. It has grown to be a respected presence in the Jewish community. However, its constant goal remains unchanged: to bring a Jewish presence to the Mid-Cities and southern Dallas and Tarrant Counties, while providing the best Jewish education to its children.
After years of countless holiday celebrations, life cycle events, religious school classes, programs, youth events and much more, the synagogue held a special weekend last November to commemorate this special occasion. Friday night services were led by past presidents of the congregation, with both adult and young adult members who had their B’nai Mitzvah at Beth Shalom leading the Saturday morning services. A fun-filled anniversary party capped the celebration.
During that weekend, members, both new and old, past or present, were asked to share some of their fondest memories of Beth Shalom. A special book, containing reflections on special people, special moments, events, etc, was created to capture examples of how Beth Shalom has affected so many lives over the years. This was truly an occasion to remember.
One of the many sources of pride for our synagogue is its Religious School. My daughter, Rachel, is enrolled in the kindergarten class along with her buddies. I can already see the difference it is making in her as she says her prayers at night as her Dad and I tuck her in.
Jewish holidays are celebrated with much fun and excitement, especially among my daughter’s kindergarten set.
Carnivals and workshops are used as learning tools. For example, on Purim, the students get a chance to hit the Hamanata (a pinata in the shape of Haman, the “bad guy” in the book of Esther). Passover is celebrated with a seder workshop, which teaches students about the seder meal while the children learn the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Chanukah is also very much fun with a workshop for making candles, menorot (menorahs), and a Chanukah play.
Along with pure fun, the mitzvah (good deed) of Tikkun Olam or “repair of the world”, a basic tenet in Judaism, is a staple of Jewish education. It is an obligation for each student to bring change and canned goods for the local food bank each week. The change, collected throughout the year, is donated to a charity chosen by the students. In the past, funds were donated to the Red Cross for Hurricane Relief, to the Tsunami Relief Fund, guide dogs for the blind as well as for the planting of trees in Israel.
Bar and Bat Mitzvah students are required to fulfill a tzedakah (charity and kindness) project. They have volunteered at pet shelters, collected school supplies for underprivileged children, tutored new immigrants in English and Math, volunteered at Habitat for Humanity and Mission Arlington.
Adult Education is also a mainstay at Beth Shalom. Basic Judaism classes as well as Torah Study led by the Rabbi are central to the overall education programming.
The Brotherhood and Sisterhood are also vital to Beth Shalom’s success in fostering a sense of community for Jewish families. They offer the opportunity for men and women to get together to develop lifelong friendships while making a difference within the congregation and the surrounding community.
Beth Shalom also has a fantastic and vibrant source of activities for its older members, called 50s forward. This group enjoys a wide range of social activities.
Of all of the wonderful organizations within the Beth Shalom community, its members are most proud of its youth organization, ARFTY. The Arlington Federation of Temple Youth is a part of a larger organization which works to instill a Jewish identity, increase involvement in synagogue activity among Jewish youth and to foster long-term commitment to Jewish ideals and values.
This award winning youth group’s most recent honor came in the form of the Fain Award, which is presented by the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. ARFTY won this prestigious award for the entire congregation for it’s hard work in creating a Tikkun Olam project, Camp Impact, from the ground up.
Camp Impact’s mission is to provide five days of summer camp to 70 homeless and/or battered children. Campers are referred from homeless shelters by school workers in impoverished areas. The camp program includes three meals a day for campers, along with arts and crafts projects, athletic activities, guest speakers and a carnival on the last day of camp.
ARFTY’s goal in continuing this project is two-fold. It hopes to help break the cycles of violence and despair perpetuated by child neglect and to help promote social responsibility not only within the group itself but in the community at large.
These activities promote the individual growth of the campers while providing a safe environment where they can build healthy relationships and learn good habits. The camp illuminates each child’s unique abilities and talents, giving children an escape from painfully adult situations and the opportunity to briefly reclaim their childhood.
Planning Camp Impact is a yearlong project. Youth groupers search for grants, develop programs, and encourage congregants to donate their time and services.
The entire congregation helps with this project by donating money to the camp through a special T-shirt fundraiser. Adult volunteers assist with programs, kitchen duties and transportation for the campers. Youth participants plan camp, develop programs, procure supplies and act as counselors.
Rabbi Ned Soltz has captured the wonderful quality of this program in a video that he made available through youtube.com. If you would like to experience this fantastic program, log onto You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MQIC9W-dRGw
I am truly looking forward to watching my children grow up in this wonderful environment. It is every parent’s goal to give his/her children the very best, spiritually and otherwise.
As Dorothy summed up at the end of the Wizard of Oz, there is no place like home. Now I truly feel that way.
Beth Shalom is supported by a very active and involved Rabbi and Board of Trustees, who meet regularly to advance the needs of the congregation. The Board is working continuously to bring out the best that Beth Shalom has to offer and many new and interesting projects are underway.
If you would like to learn more about our synagogue and what it has to offer, please visit our website at www.bethshalom.org or contact either Thressa Lobel in the synagogue office at 817-860-5448 or Phil Landsberg, Membership Chair, at 817.