HELPING SMALL JEWISH CONGREGATIONS HONOR THEIR PAST WHILE PLANNING FOR THEIR FUTURES: JCLP NEWSLETTER, SPRING, 2020
JCLP The Legacy Spring 2020 http://www.jclproject.org
The apocryphal Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” is sometimes misattributed as a Yiddish expression.
Whether Chinese or Yiddish or something else, there’s no denying that our times are unprecedented.
JCLP cares about its community of congregations. No one should feel alone. Thanks to The Union for Reform Judaism and The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, two of our national partners, we shared online and streaming resources in order to provide spiritual comfort and guidance during the early days of finding ourselves coping with an unsettled present and hoping for a stable future.
Each day brings changes. Rabbi David Lyon, Senior Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Houston and JCLP Board Member, encourages heeding words of the Psalmist and the Sages that are both timely and timeless. They are worth keeping in mind when the status quo has been upended:
When God seems far away, Psalm 139
When you feel discouraged, Psalm 40
When you are lonely or fearful, Psalm 23
When you want courage for your task, Joshua 1
When people fail or disappoint you, Psalm 27
When you feel that you’re in danger, Psalm 91
When you feel sad or despairing, Psalm 34
One Tree of Life Torah is now in Brazil and another is in the Philippines. That placement ended up being what might be called bashert since Kulanu was unaware of the Thalkars’ intensely felt connection to that country. Their son and daughter-in-law spent three years in the Philippines as Peace Corps Volunteers, returned to be married on the island of Bohol, and were back for a visit just last year. The Thalkar family longs for and will treasure the moment when they can again travel to the Philippines and join in a service with the community now reading from a Torah steeped in the history of the Oil City, Pennsylvania, Jewish community.
Additional regional planning meetings are being developed to bring like communities together to share their experiences. Congregations continue to navigate the planning process. Jewish life continues to comfort and sustain.
This edition of The Legacy introduces one of our first members of the board, the wonderful Etta Raye Hirsch, tells about precious Torahs being transferred from one generation to the next, and relates the story of a man whose collection of gold coins was a surprise source of a donation.
If you choose to join the foundations and individuals continuing to support JCLP as the only organization working exclusively on behalf of historic, small-town Jewish communities, please consider a donation.
Even though we may be separated by circumstances and distance,
JCLP embraces each of you as part of one community—Klal Yisrael—and we hope for your health and safety always but especially now.
We wish you a sweet Passover, however outside of the usual this year’s celebrations might be.
Senior Vice President, JCLP
MEET ETTA RAYE HIRSCH, MEMBER OF THE BOARD
Mention the name Etta Raye Hirsch in Atlanta and expect to see smiles and hear appreciation for the sunny and energetic woman who was honored last spring as Philanthropist of the Year by the local chapter of The Association of Fundraising Professionals.
Etta Raye was born and raised on a farm in Pulaski, a small Tennessee town 75 miles from Nashville also known as the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. Even without a synagogue in the town, Jewish heritage was an integral part of her upbringing.
She is a tireless supporter of charitable organizations in Atlanta, both in the Jewish community and also those benefiting the general public. Her contributions have supported programs that care for vulnerable populations, such as those facing illness, children with special needs, the elderly, immigrants, and the homeless.
Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta has celebrated Etta Raye for “passion for people and Jewish education and a life lived with an exceptional level of menschlickeit (humanity).” Their children and grandchildren follow the philanthropic path she and her late husband, Henry, set out with the Henry and Etta Raye Hirsch Heritage Foundation.
Etta Raye has served on many boards in the Atlanta region and has the busy schedule of someone who gives both time and money to causes she cares about.
So why become one of the initial board members of the Jewish Community Legacy Project?
“I am Jewish and from a small town,” she says. “When I first heard about JCLP I felt the importance of the project. The small town congregations served by JCLP are real and important and no one else is helping them the way that JCLP does.”
“The Jewish Community Project touched my heart,” she adds.
FROM PENNSYLVANIA AND WITHIN TO THE PHILIPPINES AND BEYOND
Jewish settlers arrived in Oil City, Pennsylvania, shortly after discovery of the eponymous fossil fuel in nearby Titusville in 1859 led to the development of the petroleum industry in the northeast corner of the state.
In 1892, Tree of Life Synagogue was founded and—much like similar synagogues in other small towns—was a spiritual, social, and educational center throughout its existence. The synagogue flourished through the 1920s but began to decline in the post-World War II years.
By the end of the 2010s, Tree of Life’s and its leaders Barry Lang and Menahem and Tania Thalkar, acknowledged that the community had dwindled to the point where the remaining few members could no longer sustain the building. The halls now resonate with the sound of children in pre-school and after-school programs since the building was sold to the local YMCA.
In addition to the sale of the building, Tree of Life had historic Torahs and other religious articles that needed new homes. For the Torahs, JCLP made a connection with Kulanu, an organization that supports isolated, emerging, and returning Jewish communities around the world.
One Tree of Life Torah is now in Brazil and another is in the Philippines. That placement ended up being what might be called bashert since Kulanu was unaware of the Thalkar intensely felt connection to that country via their son and daughter-in-law who spent three years there as Peace Corps Volunteers, returned to be married on the island of Bohol and were back for a visit just last year. The Thalkar family longs for and will treasure the moment when they can again travel to the Philippines and join in a service with the community now reading from a Torah steeped in the history of Oil City, Pennsylvania.
A Torah from a different part of the state will soon be used for worship in a new home within the state. Beth Sholom Congregation, a small but robust historic community in Johnstown, worked with JCLP to facilitate the gift of this sacred scroll to Hillel at Gettysburg College. JCLP responds to the needs of its communities with specificity.
OLEAN JEWISH COMMUNITY HELPS OTHERS LIKE IT
Everyone in town knew Joe Bear.
His job with the municipal government of Olean, New York, earned him the title “Mr. Public Works.” He was a stalwart of the Olean Jewish community from the very beginning, even though the association that eventually turned into his beloved Temple B’Nai Israel formed 14 years before his birth in 1912.
The B’Nai Israel building is a dramatic structure built in 1929 in what is known as Moorish style, with a massive arched terra cotta portal encircling a round stained glass window. It is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Faith and spirituality informed Joe Bear’s life and he was a lifelong and very involved member of the temple. He taught religious school classes and was also an officer. On Yom Kippur he was known for sitting in the foyer all day. Many people called him “Rabbi.”
He and his wife had no children. They provided hospitality for Temple B’Nai Israel’s ordained visiting rabbis and were always the model of Jewish lives lived honestly and openly. He was a singular figure and especially devoted to the synagogue after his wife’s death in 1982.
Joe Bear was a dapper dresser with a penchant for hats, a proudly patriotic WW II veteran, and a collector.
One of those collections recently became the source of the Joseph Bear Fund at JCLP.
He was ill for a number of years before his death in 2009. The Olean Jewish community gave him emotional support during that time and his memory is a treasured one.
Like many similar communities, Temple B’Nai Israel has dealt with changing demographics and declining membership. The congregation’s engagement with JCLP laid the groundwork for a legacy plan that included the recent sale of the building to a local community theater group, the transfer of a Torah to a youth camp in Northern California with a connection to four generations of B’Nai Israel members, and attention to the religious life of members still in Olean among other considerations.
“JCLP was instrumental in what was a long and detailed task,” says Marcia Storch, one of the B’Nai Israel leaders who worked with JCLP, “and one that was without a fee.”
She adds, “JCLP is a blessed process.”
Marcia Storch was also a confidante of Joe Bear and overseer of his estate. When a late inventory of his possessions uncovered a collection of gold coins, it was a clear choice to sell them to benefit the Jewish life he cherished.
Funds from the sale of Joe Bear’s long-ago collected treasure joined contributions to JCLP from other former and present B’Nai Israel members who feel affection for small-town American Jewish life, and value how JCLP’s kind and objective counsel can help comparable communities.