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Congregants Catch 'Torah Fever'

April 2, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Congregants and choir members heap on the praise during a recent Sefer Torah dedication ceremony at Congregation Temple Beth'El. Photo by Jordan Cassway

At the start of the ceremony dedicating the congregation's new Sefer Torah, Rabbi Debra Bowen of Congregation Temple Beth'El in Philadelphia summed up the situation: "I'm beside myself, as are most of Congregation Temple Beth'El," she said. "We've been unable to sleep, unable to eat -- and our medical personnel have told us that we have 'Torah fever.' "

When the congregation's response wasn't lively enough, Bowen reached into her soulful rabbinic arsenal for a guaranteed reaction: "I need to get some hallelujahs!"

Clearly, this was not your bubbe and zayda's idea of shul.

On Sunday, the congregation, in existence for nearly 60 years, celebrated the dedication of its brand new Sefer Torah. As Bowen said, "This is not a Torah donated by a rich benefactor, but this is our Torah."

The day was a celebration in every sense of the word, with a four-hour service that included singing, a live band, shaking tambourines, dancing in the aisles and a revival-style atmosphere not often found in synagogues.

"This is how we daven!" exclaimed Bowen.

The predominantly African-American synagogue occupies an unusual place in the Jewish communal landscape: a vibrant, lively Jewish congregation comprised of a population not traditionally thought of as Jewish.

The congregation was founded by Bowen's mother, the late Rabbi Louise Elizabeth Dailey, the daughter of a Baptist minister. Upon relocating to Philadelphia from Annapolis, Md., Dailey took a job in a Jewish household, where she observed many familiar practices she had seen growing up, things she had seen her father do, like keeping one's head covered at all times, sitting shivah and salting meat prior to cooking.

After prayer and reflection, she began to observe Shabbat and keep kosher, and ultimately converted to Judaism. The congregation grew out of a prayer group she held in her home.

"I think it'd be very difficult to put us into a box," noted Bowen. "People tend to call us 'Conservadox,' but we like the idea of just being Jews."

She added that the community avoids identifying by terms like Hebrews, Israelites or Black Jews because of people's preconceived notions regarding such language. She pointed out that Hebrew Israelites have at times been listed on the FBI's list of subversive groups and have been known for spewing anti-Semitic rhetoric -- neither of which she wants to be associated with.

Besides, she said, the Caucasian members of the congregation, who largely made their way there via intermarriage, might not like being referred to as "black Jews."

By the Book
According to Bowen, who has been the synagogue's rabbi for the past eight years, congregations like hers exist "more than anybody would ever know."

While she pointed out that many African-American Jews are unaffiliated and worship informally, she also noted that the 2005 book In Every Tongue: The Racial & Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People by Diane Tobin, Gary Tobin and Scott Rubin, estimates about half-a-million African-American Jews, a number she believes to be very low.

Gary Tobin is director of the Institute for Jewish and Community Learning, of which Bowen is a member. He also helped her meet other multicultural rabbis around the country.

"One question people want to ask us is, 'How many of you are there?' " she said. "We don't know, but we don't feel we need to know. If you come to services on Sabbath day, we usually have a full house -- we never sit down and count heads."

Yet Temple Beth'El has always kept a low profile -- something that Bowen said was intentional.

The synagogue, just south of Cheltenham Avenue at 7350 Lowber Ave., has occupied the same building in Philadelphia's West Oak Lane section since 1969, and, reported Bowen, "although there are many synagogues in close proximity, we've lived quietly and among ourselves."

She recalled that, in earlier days, because of the congregation's racial make-up, members were often "treated as if we were gentiles."

As such, she said, the synagogue started its own kosher butcher shop, its own kosher catering business, held its own services and early on, even wrote its own siddur, although they now rely upon Siddur Hadash, a Conservative prayer book co-edited by the late Rabbi Sidney Greenberg of Temple Sinai in Dresher.

Bowen said that the siddur has been in use there for more than a decade. They also rely on the Hertz Chumash, or Torah commentary (although Bowen said that the board is currently looking into acquiring a different Chumash).

Sunday's dedication service included four aliyot honoring members of the synagogue and those involved with acquiring the Torah.

Additionally, seven rabbis from Chicago, Atlanta, New York and elsewhere participated in the service (not all of them African-American), leading seven hakafot, or Torah processions, and reading different psalms. The day was capped off by a kiddush luncheon catered by Kosher Hands Catering, the shul's own catering service.

Every Saturday, the congregation holds what Bowen called lively but traditional services that draw a crowd she classified as younger than what one might find at many other synagogues.

As for minyans, because many members now live in the suburbs, Bowen said that they pray at 6 a.m. daily in their homes, knowing others are doing it as well. On certain occasions, like Rosh Chodesh, a traditional service takes place at the shul.

Strengthening Ties
For Bowen and her congregants, living quietly means worshiping and keeping their doors open, though not really proselytizing or seeking to attract people. That sort of thing, in too many cases, she said, often leads to questions about authenticity.

"We know who we are, and we're not questioning anybody else's authenticity, and we don't want to be subjected to that."

Bowen is not a member of Vaad: The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, which requires that members be graduates of recognized seminaries as well as be a member of a national rabbinic group.

Burt Siegel, former director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Jewish Community Relations Council, observed that while the area has had a number of African-American congregations, "for the most part, they have not been engaged in broader Jewish communal activities. I must admit that, for the most part, the organized Jewish community hasn't reached out to them, either."

Despite their low profile, Bowen said that her congregation has connected with other Jewish institutions in the area. She has spoken at places such as Congregation Beth Or in Maple Glen, and holding joint services with Congregation Tiferes B'nai Israel in Warrington and Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill.

She also has a relationship with Federation's Senior Kehilah Coordinator Andrea Hershman.

"She has met with me at my home, and we have had brunch together," Bowen said in an e-mail. "She is responsible for me speaking at Beth Or for their Synaplex, and more importantly, she has extended an invitation to our community to become a part of the Federation."

Bowen also pointed out that the Torah dedication service drew a number of African-Americans who aren't Jewish -- people, she said, who might not have shown up in the past.

For a long time, she noted, many in the community were considered "damned because we didn't believe in Christian philosophy." Yet during the service, Bowen said that she saw many of those same people "crying, and understanding that there's something really alive and viable about the worship of Judaism."

Moments like that mark "a beginning of understanding," she said, adding that the African-American and Jewish communities could continue to find similarities based on mutual respect.

Bowen said that many members of her congregation supported President Barack Obama last fall, and that they regularly pray for the president's success. The 63-year-old rabbi is a registered Republican, but she crossed party lines in November to vote for Obama.

For Bowen and her congregants, the majority of last Sunday was spent celebrating the idea of Judaism as a big tent.

"If you practice the laws of God and you practice Torah, I can't help but feel comfortable around you," said 47-year-old David Best Sr., a lifetime member of the congregation. He said that the synagogue has never attached a label to itself because of the message that sends. Rather, he said, the congregation is "a collage of everything."

"When you look at the broader scope of things, we're all cut from the same cloth," chimed in 26-year-old David Best Jr.

Congregant Israel LaPrince, 31, noted that, while the temple might have a different style from some other synagogues, the traditions are the same.

Said LaPrince: "There might be differences in the way the service is conducted, but we all love and study Torah -- that's something we have in common."

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