Rabbi Brent Chaim Spodek calls the synagogue ‘resurgent’; aims to make it “a place of creativity and rootedness in tradition.”
By Alison Rooney
Brett Spodek thought he had a plan all figured out. After studying journalism, then spending several years as a news reporter in Chapel Hill, with a beat including all the standbys: cops, fires, school news and the like, he moved into freelance magazine work. Taking a breather to travel across the country, biking and camping, he decided to expand his travels to Israel, intending to do the research for a projected book on the changing religious experiences of Gen-Xers. Leave it to bit of divine intervention at this point to wreak havoc with that plan. In his words, “I became the subject of what I was writing about.”
Exposed to the classic texts of Judaism, Spodek unexpectedly found in them a connection to ideals of his youth. He explains, “I always took literature seriously. In studying classic texts I found a language and framework that gave voice to inchoate thoughts I had. I began to see all religious systems as a way to take values and really live them. At 18 or 20 there are so many great impulses — there’s a commitment to justice, but inevitably life happens, jobs happen, and values are walked away from. Judaism can be a framework in which those values can exist over a lifetime.”
Deciding to go to a “very egalitarian” rabbinical school in Israel which “took both traditional texts and modern literature very seriously,” Spodek embraced the learning as a way of life in itself, “In our culture unless you become an academic, learning is something to do in college only. That yeshiva taught me that learning is part of a holistic culture of something done throughout life; a culture of learning which doesn’t separate learning and life.
Returning to the U.S. the now Rabbi Spodek went to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he learned “a huge amount.” There, as his wife earned a Ph.D in chemistry four blocks away, he was appointed to B’nai Jeshurun, a large temple on the Upper West Side, in a two-year fellowship for young rabbis. “I was honored to do it. There was a tremendous spiritual seriousness and it also is a rich, living place.” From there Spodek became a “rabbi-in-residence” for the American Jewish World Service, which fosters “grass roots human development. It operates from the supposition that as Jews we are obligated to be connected with the human rights of all people; there is a lot of outreach to Asia and Africa — all over the world.” After spending a couple of years doing a lot of teaching to other rabbis, three years ago, when his wife got a position at Vassar, they made the move up to the Hudson Valley. It was in their new home of Beacon that they found the Beacon Hebrew Alliance Temple, built in the 1920s just past the intersection of Main Street and Fishkill Avenue.
Just a short time ago, says Rabbi Spodek, “There wasn’t a tremendous amount of Jewish life in this area available to young kids or with a particularly creative focus. This synagogue had a succession of student rabbis over 20 years. As Beacon changed so dramatically over the past 10 years there wasn’t a lot of outreach to newcomers. I started doing activities outside of the temple: tots programs, Jewish meditative hikes in the woods, a Talmud group for total beginners where we read the texts and talked about our lives as reflected in the texts. It grew, attracting people who hadn’t done anything “Jewish” since their Bar Mitzvah. … It was clear there was a need for more creative approaches to Judaism. That first January there were three families coming regularly. By May we had a mailing list of 100 people. I became more interested in community building. Then the part-time rabbi moved on, and I came on board as rabbi with a goal of trying to build on the strengths of community: a strong volunteer culture, community ties. It had been like a co-op because there wasn’t a permanent rabbi. Now we’re at a level where for a recent Shabbat dinner 102 people registered — we had to shut down registration. We’re building on a do-it-yourself sensibility which has long existed here out of necessity, and now we’re bringing in more familiarity with texts and literature — bringing the two together to be a place of creativity and rootedness in tradition.”
Rabbi Spodek says that longtime Beacon residents have had an “overwhelmingly positive” reaction towards the changes, which have given a “huge sense of real rejuvenation here.” Citing the synagogue’s Cantor, Ellen Gersh, whose grandparents were among the founders of the synagogue, Spodek says Gersh, who grew up in Beacon, moved away and then returned, now “talks in tears about how this feels like it did when she was a kid — there’s life here now.” Calling Gersh “my invaluable partner in everything that is happening here” he praises her “amazing heart and tremendous voice.”
Congregation member Izak Breslauer has been coming to the temple for decades. He is so inspired by the turn of events of late that he has been visiting almost daily. “I’m very excited by what’s going on at the synagogue,” he says, “Although we had a wonderful membership, there are a lot of new people that moved up to the community over the last few years who are taking part in activities. I’ve been meeting a lot of younger people. I find it fascinating; many of them are becoming good friends. I’m very excited about the direction things are going. A lot of young kids are at the synagogue — there’s a lot of new life, new ideas; I find it a wonderful time.”
The temple has seen its membership increase 30 percent since last August, despite being a Conservative synagogue. “Most Conservative synagogues are declining in numbers, but we have not just new members, but a new vitality. We are poised to flourish with this whole area resurgent.” Rabbi Spodek says many of those who have joined hadn’t been affiliated with any synagogue before and are “surprised at themselves.” The natural inclination might be to assume that the many Brooklyn to Beacon transplants of the past decade might not feel most comfortable with a Conservative temple, but Rabbi Spodek says that is not the case. Describing the three types of Judaism in these terms: “The big movements emerged to answer the question of the 20th century: How does this immigrant population become American? The Orthodox movement stayed more with the old world, while Reform is more like 2/3 new, 1/3 old; Conservative mixes it kind of 50/50. Those were institutions of the 20th century; now I feel pretty American and pretty Jewish. What’s front and center for me is ‘What is this tradition and what spiritual insights can I gain from it?’ I’m more concerned over how the richness of the tradition can speak to our contemporary reality. The answers I draw upon come from all different corners of the Jewish and other worlds. These are the questions I’m preoccupied with. I get questions all the time, for instance ‘My spouse isn’t Jewish, what do I do?’ I’m less interested in where you came from and more interested in where you’re going, whether you grew up in that tradition or not. Conversely, if you’re Jewish and not really into learning, Shabbat, prayer, joy, song and community, this might not be the right place for you.”
For the many who find the synagogue the right place for them, there is an expanded roster of activities, including a teen leadership group focused on community organizing; a weekly Jewish meditation group; winter tots’ playground; morning minyan; Ramban study group; contemplative hikes once a month; a ‘conscious Jewish food choices’ group; once a month ‘Family Friendly services’ which begin at 6p.m. and feature singing and dancing; and once a month ‘Learners Gateway services,’ where things are explained for newcomers. Visit the calendar on their website for details on all of these programs.
Rabbi Spodek says he is “open and eager” to interaction with the Philipstown Reform Synagogue [Read Philipstown Reform Synagogue: Judaism with Chutzpah and Spirit] and that he’s increasingly in touch with things going on there. There are also many from Cold Spring and Garrison who are members of Beacon Hebrew.
“I come from a place of wanting to take the tradition seriously, not dogmatically,” says Rabbi Spodek. “I want to know how to engage with traditional sources and bring these to contemporary life. There are ways to skew the tradition, not because it’s the end-all answer, but there’s wisdom in it. There should be a fruitful dialogue between past and present.”
Anyone interest in learning more about Beacon Hebrew should contact Rabbi Spodek either by phone at 845-831-2012 or by emailing him at email@example.com or just coming along to any activity of interest found on the calendar; it needn’t necessarily be a service the first time.
Photos by A.Rooney