Beit Am, rabbi in sync to tune of 4 more years
By Deborah Moon
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Beit Am/Mid-Willamette Valley Jewish Community has extended the contract for its first full-time rabbi—Rabbi Benjamin Barnett—for four more years.
“There was an overwhelming consensus that continuing our relationship was a blessing for our community,” said Beit Am President Shelley Dubkin-Lee. “He is a uniter. He is able to make everyone feel welcome from the most humanistic to the most traditional member we have.”
It’s an important trait in a city with a limited population of Jews of diverse beliefs. Since Barnett’s arrival, membership has grown from about 120 member households to about 130-140 member households—“Not by leaps and bounds, but Corvallis doesn’t have leaps and bounds of Jews,” said Dubkin-Lee.
Beit Am was founded in 1974 to broaden Jewish life in the Mid-Willamette valley. Barnett is the group’s first full-time rabbi.
Barnett accepted a two-year contract in Corvallis starting August 2006 after graduating from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College two months earlier. The new contract will run from Aug. 1, 2008, through July 2012. Barnett, his wife Rachel Teadora, and children Lev, 4½, and Arava, 2, are expecting the arrival of the family’s first native Oregonian this summer.
Barnett said that Corvallis suits his family well. They enjoy the family-friendly feel, the welcoming attitude and the prevailing interest in outdoor activities and gardening. As apprentice to become a home-birth midwife, his wife enjoys Oregonians’ openness to that practice.
In fact, the fit into the community was another reason the Beit Am board voted to extend Barnett’s contract according to Dubkin-Lee.
“He fits in the Corvallis community on every level,” she said. “When he represents us, we hear back that he is wonderful.”
While membership numbers haven’t grown substantially, Dubkin-Lee said that participation and enthusiasm has grown.
“There’s an increase in enthusiasm, in Ruach (spirit),” she said. “There’s a spark that’s happened since he’s been heading us.”
For his part, Barnett said he is pleased to be in a community where people want to engage in serious ways with Jewish spiritual life.
“As a rabbi, I appreciate when I bring teaching in, I see a lot of respect, excitement and enthusiasm,” he said.
Barnett said he grew up in a Conservative synagogue near Chicago where communal institutions existed for all Jewish needs. In Corvallis, Jewish traditions are hands-on because “people had to learn to do it, because there is nowhere else to turn.”
He said when his grandfather died in Chicago, a Jewish funeral home coordinated all arrangements. When a Beit Am congregant died, community members took care of the tahara (ritual preparation of the body) and volunteered to take shifts to sit with the deceased around the clock for a day and a half.
“It’s been a lay-led group for so long, it has a core group of folks interested in taking leadership roles and people ready to step up and take responsibility for their own Jewish life,” he said. “People love living here and are willing to do a lot to help each other.”
Barnett said he was also impressed that the diverse membership seems intent on staying one community. He said the diversity is occasionally a challenge, but he considers it a creative challenge.
He said the diversity was clearly evident last year when the congregation chose a new High Holiday machzor (prayerbook). Unlike on Shabbat, when the congregation can rotate between different prayerbooks for different services each week, on the High holidays everyone prays together, he said.
“It was a process,” he said, noting he felt most people were happy with the selection though he knows for some on both ends of the spectrum it is not what they would have chosen.
“Folks who are more traditional recognize their individual needs might not be met, but they are willing to do what’s good for the community as a whole,” he said. “It’s a balancing act to offer what is helpful and meaningful.”
“I feel I am finding my groove with it,” Barnett added. “I appreciate that the community recognizes we are all learning together. I’m doing the best I can to be the best rabbi I can be … and I’m always learning how I can serve.”
Dubkin-Lee said that Barnett listens, is humble and is “inordinately respectful of everyone’s views.”
“But he’s very knowledgeable and brings a wealth of ways of looking at Judaism,” she added.
Barnett said he believes Beit Am is a good role model for clal Israel.
“We should all aspire to be able to have convsersations with fellow Jews even though we may observe Shabbat differently,” he said. “As long as we are connecting over traditions, narrative and values, there is room to practice and believe in different ways.”
Barnett said he has a few goals he wants to work toward in the next four years.
In the religious school, he said he’d like to expand family education and provide more opportunities for lived, experiential Judaism. He’d also like to add more tikkun olam or social service for both youth and the congregation in general. Though Beit Am has a long history of social action, he said he would like to bring it more to the core of the community.
He said he would like to find ways to connect Beit Am more deeply to Oregon’s Jewish community.
A community goal is to continue to be more financially stable and viable, a goal he said he will help with in whatever way he can.
“One area I am interested in investing energy is toward greater inclusion of intermarried families,” Barnett said. “Beit Am has a large number of intermarried couples, and I would love to do whatever I can to help the non-Jewish family member, and the family as a whole, experience Beit Am as a place that welcomes them and provides a way into a spiritual life that feels relevant and authentic for them.”
Barnett said he also hopes that within the next couple years the congregation can begin to have serious conversations about how to develop the five acres Beit Am owns on the edge of town. Currently Beit Am is housed in a two-story home that is “bursting at the seams,” and which is too small for holiday services and b’nai mitzvah celebrations.
“I would love to be here when Beit Am has a new building,” he said. “That would be a wonderful thing to be involved in.”