JERUSALEM (Sep. 13)
Among the numerous synagogues and minyans in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City here, only the small but vibrant Mesorati (Conservative) congregation is non-Orthodox. Organized by a few families of American olim in the autumn of 1979, the congregation is a Conservative alternative for Jewish Quarter residents.
“For us, the synagogue is our community,” said Frances Alpert, one of the founders. Along with her husband, Bernard, a former Midwest United Synagogue of America president, and their two teenagers, she come on aliya in 1979 from Highland Park, III.
That year the congregation met in each other’s homes for Kabbalat Shabbat services every Friday evening; once a month communal Shabbat service followed. A volunteer student rabbi from Neve Schechter taught monthly Talmud classes. Since then there have been classes in Jewish philosophy and a public affairs forum.
Alpertsaid the Mesorati movement cooperates with the congregation and provided a Torah and their first prayer books, The Jewish Quarter congregation is not only conveniently located for neighborhood residents and visitors, but is also informal and “heimish.”
PEACEFUL COEXISTENCE WITH ORTHODOX NEIGHBORS
Today the congregation has grown to about a dozen families, and services are held every Friday evening at the Yigal Allon Center in the Jewish Quarter. The building is owned by the Histadrut, which allows the congregation to meet there rent free. Membership costs only $25 per family. Most members are Conservative American olim, or American-Israeli “mixed marriages.” Their children are either very young or no longer living at home.
“We are never going to be that big,” Alpert said of the congregation’s size, “The nature of the area we live in gives us that problem.” There is housing in the Quarter for only 600 families; 75 percent are Orthodox and most others are secular.
Despite the largely Orthodox makeup of the Jewish Quarter, Alpert said that the congregation has never been harassed by neighbors. “Sometimes our posters are torn off bulletin boards, but that happens to everyone,” she said. When a resident Hasidic rabbi needs extra beds for his overflow of young guests on Shabbats, he does not hesitate to ask Alpert or other congregation members to house them.
MEET REGULARLY ON FRIDAY NIGHTS, HOLIDAYS
At present, the congregation meets regularly only on Friday evenings and on holidays. “Only four of our families are Shorner Shabbat and the rest drive on Saturdays,” Alpert explained. “We can’t always catch them on Saturdays, Everyone in the Jewish Quarter goes to Kabbalat Shabbat services, so it’s a lot easier to get a minyan then. Friday night at home is on Israeli tradition.” Men and women are counted in the minyan, and women are called to the Torah for aliyot.
Alpert said that getting a minyan of 10 people is a “worry” for the small congregation, even on Friday nights. She said she “thinks twice before going away” for a weekend, and she encourages American visitors to join the minyan. During the High Holy Days, however, some 120 people attend services.
On special occasions such as Bar or Bat Mitzvahs, the congregtion also meets on Saturday mornings. For these Saturdays and on the High Holy Days. a rabbi and cantor are engaged. Between Succot and Shavuot, there is a student rabbi on alternate Friday evenings, and during summer months, visiting Conservative rabbis from America frequently lead Kabbalat Shabbat services.
WOULD LIKE TO INVOLVE MORE U.S. OLIM
Congregation members would like to see more American families celebrate Bar and Bat Mitzvahs with them, “We’re in the heart of the Jewish Quarter, overlooking the Kotel, ” (Western Wall) Alpert said, She also suggested that United Synagogue Youth groups visit the Jewish Quarter minyan, as an alternative to the “segregated Kotel,” Bar and Bat Mitzvah kiddushes. elegantly catered by members, provide income for the congregation.
President of the Congregation is Walter Roth, who come on aliya in 1978 with his wife, Lois, and their children, Like the Alpert family, the Roths were active in the Conservative movement in America. He was president of the Shelter Rock Jewish Center, Long Island, and treasurer of Bnai Jacob Congregation in Woodbridge, Conn. Roth said that the four Bar and Bat Mitzvahs during the summer of 1983 included that of the nephew of Dr. Gerson Cohen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and leader of the Conservative movement.
The congregation reached a milestone on July 23, 1983, with the first Brit Milah of a congregational family, The friends, relatives and neighbors of the baby’s American olah mother and Israeli father created a fascinating mosaic of secular, Orthodox and Conservative Jews, To complete the picture, officiants were a Hasidic mohel, complete with fur hat, and Rabbi Yosef Green, spiritual leader of the Agron Street Conservative Synagogue and a resident of the Jewish Quarter.
Roth echoed Alpert’s description of harmonious relations with Orthodox neighbors, “We’ve had no overt complaints,” he said, “Things have happened (to Conservative congregations) in other neighborhoods. In this neighborhood, so far–Baruch HaShem –things are going pretty smoothly.”
Other new Conservative congregations have recently been formed in East Talpiot, Romot and Gilo, on the out skirts of Jerusalem; Carmiel, in the Galilee; Arad, in the Negev; and Kiryat Bialik, in suburban Haifa. All of the Conservative congregations in Israel are matched with branches of Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, which provide books, amenities, financial and moral support.