Synagogue: On the Upswingby Jessica Hanewinckel January 31, 2013
By Jessica Hanewinckel
Moses said it best. When Pharaoh asked him which Israelites he wanted to take with him out of Egypt, Moses replied, “We will go with our young and with our old, with our sons and with our daughters…” (Exodus 10:9).
This regard for the importance of both the young and the old to the Jewish people is pervasive at Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox shul in the College Area.
“It’s important for the young people to look back, to have people to learn from, to see where things come from,” says Beth Jacob’s Rabbi Avram Bogopulsky, “and it’s very important for the older generation to see that the fruits of their labor are continuing through the next generation and the children. It gives them reason to come and participate to see that it’s not a dying, fledgling place but it’s really a hopping and growing place.”
Beth Jacob, which is celebrating its 75th year in 2014, has been successful for many decades at supporting the senior community. It offers senior housing in its apartments right on its large property, and it’s home to Jewish Family Service’s College Avenue Center, which serves older adults with meals, activities and entertainment. Older adults feel like they’re part of a community at Beth Jacob in every way imaginable, explains Rabbi Bogopulsky, who arrived there in 1996.
Only more recently, though, has the synagogue seen a huge uptick in its growth of young couples, singles and families. (Currently, about 75 percent of the synagogue’s active, involved membership is young singles, couples or families, the rabbi says.)
“We currently are on the upswing in the sense of the future,” Rabbi Bogopulsky says. “We definitely have a shift in our age. The median age has dropped significantly, and our programming [reflects that].”
Five years ago, Rabbi Bogopulsky hired Yisroel Weiser as the shul’s newest youth and outreach director. (Weiser, serendipitously, grew up in the synagogue, so working at Beth Jacob, now with his own wife, Malka, and their three children beside him, is like coming home.) Though many of Beth Jacob’s most popular young adult-, kid- and family-friendly events were successful prior to Weiser’s arrival, attracting 200 people to one event, for example, Weiser has been able to market the events in a way his predecessors didn’t, drawing twice as many people to those same events, in some instances.
Partnerships with other community organizations and businesses, coupled with introducing more cutting edge programming in a kosher setting, have brought the Jewish community out in droves to the synagogue’s events and have often been the catalyst for intergenerational mingling.
Programs like Beth Jacob’s annual Sukkot at Boomers!, where the shul rents out all of Boomers! Family Entertainment Center and sets up a sukkah there for a catered dinner, or its annual Strawberry Fields Forever event, where the community picks strawberries in Carlsbad and returns to the synagogue to clean them for bugs and then bake strawberry shortcake, have drawn hundreds of people.
“Beth Jacob became an avenue for seeing Orthodox Judaism that’s new and very involved,” Weiser says. “It’s not just cutting edge. It’s something people are already involved in in other contexts. We just place it in a Jewish context, and that’s really brought people together. We create events that are open to them. They come, and they inspire the growth they want to be a part of.”
A comedy night featuring professional comedians and local celebrity Renee Kohn drew both teens and adults of all ages.
“It was well attended,” Weiser says. “That was the milkshake that brought everyone to the yard. We had the young generation coming, the middle generation coming, the old generation coming, and it was all in a venue that is always connected to Jewish programming.”
Another time, the shul was host to a kosher cooking show featuring celebrity kosher chef Susie Fishbein. They’ve also invited Israeli photojournalist and author Gil Cohen-Magen to speak at the shul, which attracted as many rapt teens as it did adults.
“Cohen-Magen himself said he’d never seen teens so responsive to this kind of thing, where you get teens coming out on a Wednesday night just to see an Israeli photographer,” Weiser recalls. “[It’s about] trying to create events like that that cut through demographics and cut through different ideological beliefs. It’s something that’s galvanized our community, and we’re seeing that uptick [in involvement] as we go along.”
Of course, all the holidays receive the proper celebration, with Purim and Chanukah done up spectacularly for the kids; last year’s Purim celebration drew almost 400 people, members and not (this year’s is Feb. 24).
“There are all different levels of joining,” Weiser says. “We have non-members whose kids go to almost all of our kids programming. … If someone wants to engage at any different level, it’s really offered here. It’s that openness that really cuts through denominations.”
But for young couples who don’t yet have children, they built a Friday night program with dinner that started with five couples and has grown to between 20 and 25. Says Weiser, these young couples aren’t just showing up Friday nights; many are coming every day.
“Our services and programs are run by young guys and girls,” Weiser says. “That’s an amazing thing to see. Even in large cities with lots of people it’s very rare, because the established people tend to run the thing. Here, the ball’s in their court. If they want to see something, it can be done. We have the facilities, the will and the capability to do it.
“Our slogan has become ‘The Center of Your Jewish Life,’ and we try to become that. It says in the Torah that the Torah has to be made new unto every generation, so you have a Torah that’s thousands of years old, that people are learning in the rabbi’s classes, in basketball games, in a rented out amusement park, and it all comes together in taking what you learn and making a practice of it. That continuous cycle of learning what you live and living what you learn connects to all different Jews on different levels.”
Beth Jacob Congregation
4855 College Ave.
San Diego, CA 92115