Congregation Tiferet Israel and Temple Beth Shalom Bring Kehillah to Life on Simchat Torah
Temple Beth Shalom congregants take a close look at the Torah scroll. Photo credit: Marissa Wright, Temple Beth Shalom
By Tonyia Cone
Modern Orthodox Congregation Tiferet Israel and Reform Temple Beth Shalom put the Jewish value of kehillah—community building—into action this Simchat Torah by working to find ways to celebrate together.
Temple Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Amy Cohen explained that an event two summers ago sowed the seed of the idea. Temple Beth Shalom invited the community to a Saturday night event featuring a scholar in residence, and the largest group that came was from Congregation Tiferet Israel.
The group enjoyed seudah shelishit, the third meal on Shabbat, together.
“It was a beautiful partnership. We had fun getting to know each other and connecting that night,” Cohen explained.
Rabbi Alan Freedman, Cohen and others from Temple Beth Shalom who had been involved in the event wanted to get together with their neighbors at Congregation Tiferet Israel again, and when creating the year’s calendar last spring, figured Simchat Torah would be a fun opportunity.
Marissa Wright, Temple Beth Shalom clergy assistant, found that those she worked with from Congregation Tiferet Israel while planning the event were just as excited about getting together.
“They were enthusiastic and kind and wonderful about it,” she said.
Rabbi Daniel Millner of Congregation Tiferet Israel said, “The spirit of Simchat Torah is about loving every Jew and the unity of the Torah. The Jewish people received the Torah when they came together with one heart, as one people. It only made sense to come together to celebrate that message together.”
Temple Beth Shalom started the evening with its own service before Congregation Tiferet Israel members joined them for Torah trivia. Next, those from Congregation Tiferet Israel returned to their synagogue for ma’ariv, their evening prayer service.
Meanwhile, Cantor Abby Gostein taught Temple Beth Shalom members a list of songs—Ki Mitzion, David Melech Yisrael, Ivdu Et Hashem, and Torah Tziva Lanu Moshe—she and Millner agreed on beforehand that the group would sing during the evening’s first hakafah, the communal dance around a religious object. On Simchat Torah, this dance is done with Torahs.
Gostein said, “We wanted something musically that was going to work for both groups. It was wonderful how things turned out,” she said, adding that she and Millner worked to find melodies common to both communities.
The night’s events continued in the parking lot between the congregations’ buildings, where attendees shared snacks, drinks and the hakafah.
Cohen explained that the major takeaway for her community was that there are always ways to celebrate together.
By communicating about potential challenges, asking questions and taking care to respect one another’s traditions, the communities were able to find ways to celebrate the holiday together while maintaining their unique ways of observing.
When they first discussed getting together, Rabbi Millner proposed sharing the final hakafah, but Temple Beth Shalom does not dance that late into the night.
Cohen said, “Within the first five minutes [of the planning conversation], we shared challenges and found solutions.”
Another potential hurdle was Congregation Tiferet Israel members’ observance of kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws. The solution to that issue was simple—Henna Tatham of Congregation Tiferet Israel arranged for the evening’s refreshments, and Temple Beth Shalom helped foot the bill.
“If we keep that goal in mind, of partnership and celebrating Judaism together and learning from one another, we can overcome barriers our individual communities may present,” Cohen said.
Leaders purposefully designed the evening’s program around one another’s requirements. When putting together Torah trivia questions, Millner shared the material with Temple Beth Shalom leaders ahead of time to make sure members of both communities would feel comfortable during the activity.
Temple Beth Shalom leaders tried to be conscientious about using microphones, sound amplification and musical instruments that evening because Congregation Tiferet Israel follows the laws of yom tov, rules regarding work on sacred days, which do not permit the use of such tools on certain holidays like Simchat Torah.
Those who organized the event also worked out ahead of time how the dancing would take place. Typically, men and women dance together at Temple Beth Shalom, and separately at Congregation Tiferet Israel. Planners agreed to have a men’s circle, a women’s circle and a co-ed circle, but during the event, men and women ended up choosing to dance separately.
“Rabbi Millner’s willingness to let us have the third circle was really kind,” said Cohen, who added that she also found it very respectful of Millner to publicly call her “Rabbi Cohen,” since some Orthodox Jews do not recognize the legitimacy of female rabbis.
“There was great respect and care making sure each congregation was fully present and everybody’s needs were met,” Millner explained.
Tatham said, “We had more people, more ruach [spirit]. There was more excitement, to be in a larger group.”
She added that the holiday “had more community and connection” than usual because of the partnership.
One moment that particularly stood out for Millner was dancing with Freedman during the hakafah.
“To embrace each other, be together and dance together was a very special moment for me. We had planned this event for so long, that moment of experiencing what we were speaking about and sharing that moment with him,” Millner said.
Wright said, “We were able to see how similar the two sects of Judaism could be during the celebration. In the end, we’re all Jews. That’s the point of the whole celebration. It was wonderful having them in our space, to let them experience what we’re doing, and to see what they’re doing. We’re all a whole lot more similar than we think.”
Cohen explained that the event demonstrated her belief that many Jews care less about differences between denominations than about Jewish community and k’lal yisrael, caring for all Jewish people.
“I think people just want to be Jewish. They don’t want to pick a denomination,” she said.
While the two congregations do not have concrete plans for another cooperative event, many people talked on Simchat Torah about wanting to do more together.
Cohen explained that such events help break down barriers between people.
“We can have more in depth conversations now that we know each other and have a relationship. That couldn’t happen if we didn’t have a foundation,” she said. “I could sense they had some of the same kinds of questions we have about them. If we have this intention of wanting to learn and celebrate together, we can ask those questions.”
Millner explained it can be easy to say no to doing things together because of differences, that it can be harder to find ways to say yes to each other.
“I think we’re living in a time of greater division between communities and people. Any opportunity available to put differences aside and come together is imperative,” he said.
Cohen explained, “The people who had the idea of a campus with many communities on it, I imagine they hoped this type of partnership would happen. I hope we continue to do so and fulfill the dreams of those who founded this campus.”
Millner added, “We live the commitment to ahavat Yisrael, loving every person. That’s what this community is about.” ■