JEFFERSON CITY — Every Friday evening, Joseph Benson sits in one of the pews at Temple Beth-El, prayer book in his lap, listening closely as a volunteer congregant leads the week’s services and reads the Shabbat prayers.
Although Benson — who has attended Temple Beth-El for seven years — was ordained as a rabbi on June 2, he doesn’t feel the need to take over leading the weekly services.
After all, Temple Beth-El has operated without a rabbi since it was built in 1883, and Benson isn’t looking to fix something that doesn’t seem to be broken.
Temple Beth-El is one of the oldest synagogues west of the Mississippi River that still holds services on its original site. But its congregation is so small that it has never been able to afford to hire a rabbi, instead choosing to have lay leaders take turns stepping up to the dais.
“This is a very resourceful synagogue,” Benson said. “We’ve always been able to continue, and we’ve endured with strength and dignity, with ‘kavanah’ (spiritual intensity). We have a spirituality, even without a rabbi, to make do.”
According to Jewish law, a rabbi is not necessary for a synagogue to function, said Rabbi Mayer Waxman, former director of synagogue services with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. All that’s needed is a group of involved, learned people who will help others learn about Jewish religious life and take the time to study up on Jewish laws and traditions.
Despite this, Temple Beth-El continues to be a small minority among U.S. synagogues.
“In theory, you don’t need a rabbi to lead services, but in reality today, that is not the case,” said Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Columbia’s Congregation Beth Shalom. “Many communities cannot provide this base of a voluntary group of learned Jewish people who are willing to lead services, to learn Torah, to teach Judaism. This has become the default domain of rabbis.”
Although the number of synagogues without rabbis tends to fluctuate, the Reconstructionist movement has the highest percentage of lay-led congregations in America. The Orthodox movement has the smallest percentage, while Reform and Conservative synagogues fall in between.
The decision to be a lay-led synagogue is often based on economics. Very small congregations — generally defined as those having less than 150 members — often cannot afford to hire a rabbi. Even small congregations that opt for a professional sometimes have trouble getting one, as young rabbis often choose larger synagogues where there is more opportunity for growth.
The result: many small or isolated congregations struggle, unable to keep congregants who are willing to learn the Torah and the history and traditions of Judaism well enough to lead services. Feintuch said that was part of the reason for the closure of the temple in Sedalia several years ago. A small, somewhat isolated community operating without a rabbi, it was unable to bring in enough members and contributions to keep the synagogue running.
Benson said his ordination does not in any way mean that he will begin leading all services at Beth-El or become the congregation’s full-time rabbi. Instead, he will continue to function to a great extent as he always has: as a knowledgeable Jew who is willing to continue learning and sharing his expertise to help fellow congregants and Jews throughout mid-Missouri.
Each lay leader brings his or her own background and interpretation to the weekly worship at Temple Beth-El. Although the congregation is affiliated with the Reform Judaism movement, Friday nights tend to “take on the flavor of who’s reading that week,” said Gail Severance, who has attended the synagogue for 13 years. People in the synagogue are fine without a rabbi, she said, although many would probably want to hire one if the congregation had the money.
Barbara Herman, who has been attending Temple Beth-El for 46 years and is currently the congregation’s unofficial education director, said she likes that members work together in the absence of a rabbi. There’s a feeling of responsibility among congregants, she said, who take it upon themselves to make sure the synagogue continues its historic mission.
“Judaism comes from the heart,” Herman said. “You probably have to be more giving of yourself in a small congregation, and in so doing, you reap more than from being in a large congregation. You have to step up.”
Beth-El has endured without a rabbi “just fine” for more than 100 years, Severance said. The congregation would invite rabbis from other synagogues or areas to facilitate important events like weddings and funerals. Because Feintuch is the closest rabbi, he often came to officiate events, and the group would also take in retired or student rabbis at times to fill its needs. But none of those rabbis were intimately tied into Beth-El’s community and history.
Partly for this reason, when Severance’s oldest son and daughter celebrated their bar and bat mitzvah, respectively, she made sure to book her old rabbi from St. Louis — now retired — to lead the ceremonies. She’s already booked him for her youngest child’s bat mitzvah in August 2010.
“It’s quite a thrill (having my old rabbi there for my kids),” Severance said. “He passed the Torah from my father to me to my (son and daughter). He’s married off four people in my family. I guess when he’s no longer available when I need him, it will hit me a little harder that we don’t have a rabbi,” she said.
It’s hard to know how many temples in Missouri do not have rabbis, according to several Jewish organizations. Meanwhile, synagogue unions for each of the Jewish denominations offer support and education for lay leaders. For example, the Union for Reform Judaism helps small congregations train lay leaders in religious life with a seminar called Had’rachah.
“We want to create opportunities for lay leaders to seek education in certain areas and be empowered in things they can do,” said Rabbi Victor Appell, small congregations specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism.
But the congregants of Temple Beth-El say what they are doing works for them, and they’ll keep going as long as they can.
“Looking back, 46 years later, I wouldn’t change anything at all,” Herman said. “We’re really like a big family. When we’re this small a group, we depend on each other. We need each other. We religiously and spiritually need each other.”