By Jessica Hanewinckel
If you’re ever in the Vista area, you might not notice Congregation B’nai Tikvah, but for the sign outside identifying it as such. The smallish congregation of about 70 member units makes its home in a former private residence on a corner lot in a quiet neighborhood. The building, which the congregation purchased and transformed into a working synagogue (though it still feels very much like your grandmother’s house) is surrounded by a private garden and tall trees, perfect for a potluck, bar mitzvah reception or campfire. It’s the ideal setting for a family gathering, and in fact, that’s not a bad description for what B’nai Tikvah events often feel like. In fact, it’s this close-knit, everyone-knows-your-name atmosphere, coupled with its open, welcoming atmosphere to anyone and everyone, that endears it so much to its members, says Wendy Oxenhorn, a congregant and mom to a son enrolled in B’nai Tikvah’s Hebrew school.
“Everybody is so nice,” Oxenhorn says. “Nobody argues, there’s no backstabbing, none of that. I can come here with or without my family and feel like I’m a part of something. Here, you walk in the door and you get a hug from someone, you start talking, and you feel like you belong here.”
Perhaps one reason so many people who “try out” B’nai Tikvah find it to be a good fit is the synagogue’s dual identification as both Reform and Conservative.
“[Dropping our formal affiliations to identify as both] was a purposeful decision,” Oxenhorn says. “It’s surprising how many couples include one person from a Reform background and one from a Conservative background, so when two people go to the same temple, one is always uncomfortable. … We decided that that’s really what this community needs is a congregation where they can come to both types of services, and so they can be there together and everybody feels comfortable. The rabbi and the cantor are extremely flexible, very inclusive. Rabbi [Ben] Leinow really believes so strongly about needing to include everybody in the religion and not exclude them.”
In fact, says B’nai Tikvah’s Rabbi Leinow, they welcome into their community Jews of all denominations, those who want to be full time members and those who just come once, interfaith couples, the non-Jewish partner who never intends to convert, secular Jews, the LGBT community and anyone else who seeks to be part of B’nai Tikvah, on whatever level they’d like.
“If a person is interested in being part of us, I welcome that, on whatever level they can make it,” the rabbi says. “If they can come to the In Our Mid’zt [introduction to Judaism] class, that’s fine. If they just come to services with their partner or friend, that’s fine. It’s all part of a growing process.”
One way they make themselves known in the North County community is through the semi-annual Carlsbad Street Fair, where they’ve had a booth for at least the last five years. In fact, the fair was how incoming president Victor Zavala learned about B’nai Tikvah. Zavala, a Jew by choice, was a student in the rabbi’s first series of In Our Mid’zt classes and, with his wife, converted to Judaism at the synagogue. Explains Zavala, the classes, and the entire synagogue, for that matter, are designed to make Jews of all kinds feel comfortable. Whereas he had been studying Judaism for about 20 years before he converted and had taught himself Hebrew, that seemed daunting to his wife. Yet both were able to gain the knowledge they needed to convert and find a place where they felt comfortable within the synagogue.
B’nai Tikvah covers the gamut when it comes to service styles: lay-led minyan services that are more Reform-oriented and include lots of discussion some Friday nights; a musical Shabbat service with a focus on Jewish music and musicians; a “L’Chayim” service where a guest speaker is invited; Friday night family services; more Conservative Saturday morning services with more Hebrew and a full traditional service; and, during the summer, services on the beach in Oceanside.
Next month, they’ll hold their always popular High Holy Days services at the Dove Library in Carlsbad, during which they strike a balance between a typical Reform and Conservative service and keep ticket prices affordable to allow as many people as possible to attend, says outgoing president Cheryl Kaufman.
“I think our purpose for being here is to serve this community,” Oxenhorn says. “Like all other communities around the country, there are so many varying needs in the Jewish community now. There’s such a mixture, and I think what we’ve worked really hard to do is to be as flexible as we can so we can serve the needs of the people in this community. We have such a diverse group of people who come here on a regular and irregular basis and who know they’re always welcome here.”
Congregation B’nai Tikvah
830 South Melrose Dr.
Vista, CA 92081