By Jessica Hanewinckel
In the grand scheme of things, a decade is merely a blip in time. But at La Jolla’s Congregation Beth El, the past 10 years have marked a new era at the Conservative synagogue, and this year, they’re due for a celebration.
That’s because 2012 marks Senior Rabbi Philip Graubart’s 10th anniversary as Beth El’s spiritual leader, and 10 years since Beth El has been witness to some major changes on its campus and within its congregation.
Beth El honored Rabbi Graubart with an evening of dinner and dancing June 16 at the shul and used the opportunity to formally announce the establishment of the Rabbi Philip Graubart Senior Rabbinic Chair Endowment.
“Some of you asked how I feel about being honored this evening,” the rabbi said during his speech June 16. “I’ll admit to some ambivalence, but only because of my personality. Despite my choice of profession, I’m not a center of attention person, and this evening certainly brings myself to your attention. But I am a synagogue person, and I am most definitely a Beth El person, so I’m immensely gratified — really, moved beyond words — to be here with you this mozei Shabbat, and to accept this honor.”
As a way to honor Rabbi Graubart for his decade of service, Beth El has named the senior rabbinic position after him, and they’ve also begun an endowment campaign that will help the synagogue provide the annual revenue to fund the salary and related expenses of Beth El’s senior rabbi. In effect, Rabbi Graubart explains, the endowment will free up membership dues and other fees, which would normally have gone, in part, toward the rabbi’s salary, to now benefit the congregation in different ways.
“Ultimately,” he says, “the endowment is about funding the operations so we can offer better services to the Jewish community.”
The endowment also ensures the synagogue will not “have to raise membership dues every year because expenses go up,” he explains. “It’s been an opportunity to lower dues a little bit and also do a little bit more through the endowment.”
So what has Rabbi Graubart helped to accomplish over the last decade that’s made his service at Beth El such a cause for celebration?
He cites two major areas as highlights in Beth El’s positive transformation over the last decade. First, the congregation has shifted demographically. Whereas it was formerly comprised of older members, it now includes many young families and young adults. It’s also much larger now, having gone from about 350 to about 550 families.
The demographic shift has a lot to do with deliberate programming choices that have targeted these populations, including Chai, programming for 18- to 36-year-olds; Shabbat Vibes, a rock-‘n’-roll synagogue service featuring Craig Parks; Project Outreach, a program offering discounted, graduated fee memberships for young families to show them the value of joining a synagogue; and hiring a full-time membership director to work specifically with those families.
Secondly, the campus itself has physically transformed, though, the rabbi admits the plans for that were already in the works by the time he arrived. They redid the entire facility, including the offices, social hall, Hebrew school, preschool and other buildings. They built their current sanctuary from the ground up.
Most importantly, though, Rabbi Graubart says he’s consistently strived to develop Beth El into the most inviting place it can be.
“We’ve really tried to be open and welcoming to the greatest number of Jews in the community,” he says, “to have the wide embrace of a big, open tent, from the staff to the board to the membership on down. We have a place for you. We don’t judge you. We just want to support you in any kind of endeavor to articulate your Jewish identity.”
In a constant effort to reexamine its programming and methodologies, Beth El is in the process of starting three new initiatives to further meet its members’ needs and reach a broader population: a new position has been created to deal solely with Israel-related issues, including community advocacy, education and trips; Shabbat BaBayit takes big Shabbat dinners formerly held at the synagogue into members’ homes to create a warmer, more intimate experience; and Partners in Torah brings together small groups who meet outside the synagogue at coffee shops and private homes to study Torah together using material the synagogue is compiling.
“I’ve found we have to change all the time,” he says of Beth El’s constant efforts to create new programming and reevaluate the old. “You can’t assume that what’s working now is going to be working in another two or three years. We’re never going to be fully satisfied with what’s going on, and we’re always going to be thinking creatively and wondering what the next approach is going to be. But our goal always stays the same. We want to engage people meaningfully in their Judaism, so that people have opportunities to articulate and live serious Jewish lives.”