Beit Tikvah gets 1st full-time rabbi

Native of Canada will lead service for Rosh Hashana

September 10, 1999|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Congregation Beit Tikvah, Baltimore's only Reconstructionist synagogue, has come of age.

The congregation was started 15 years ago by four women sharing an affinity for science fiction. It has grown to a point where it will celebrate the High Holidays, which begin at sundown tonight, with its first full-time rabbi.

Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton, a native of Canada and former opera singer, will lead the service for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year celebration that commences 10 days of prayer and introspection culminating in Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

As she takes to her new pulpit, Bolton points out that Beit Tikvah is beyond the age of bar mitzvah, the Jewish religious rite of passage. "They're ready to take on Jewish adulthood," she said. "They're ready to establish themselves as a presence in the Jewish community."

Beit Tikvah is an adolescent congregation that is part of Reconstructionism, a pubescent movement in Judaism.

Reconstructionism started as the liberal wing of Conservative Judaism. It was conceived in the 1920s by Mordecai M. Kaplan, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative seminary in New York, whose theology viewed Judaism not as a rigid, received tradition, but as the "evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people."

"Tradition has a vote, not a veto," was one of his manifestoes.

Reconstructionism gradually emerged as a fourth branch, in addition to Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism.

While it was the first to ordain women and homosexual rabbis, it is traditional when it comes to liturgy, which is mostly in Hebrew, and it encourages use of religious garb, like the kipa (skullcap) and the talis (prayer shawl).

Beit Tikvah was formed in 1984, when four Jewish women who were all in interfaith marriages met as members of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society.

They were interested in joining a religious community and in providing their children with a Jewish religious education, "but we didn't want to get lost in big Reform and Conservative synagogues in Pikesville and Northwest Baltimore," said Elaine Stiles, one of the founders. "We wanted something small."

From its beginning, holding services in a room at Morgan State University, Beit Tikvah has sought to retain its intimate, family feel. Until now, the services were led by a student or a part-time rabbi. The cantor was selected from within the congregation.

Beit Tikvah still doesn't have a building. It holds its services at First Christian Church, 5802 Roland Ave. "When we hold services, we transform their chapel into a synagogue," Stiles said. Last year, Beit Tikvah, which has grown to about 85 households, decided it was time to expand its horizons again.

With a student or part-time rabbi, "there was nothing to give us continuity or stability," said Esther Miller, Beit Tikvah president. "As an organization or individual matures, there comes a need for the continuity and connection, and the need of the membership to go beyond where we were in terms of knowledge, practical spirituality, education for ourselves, for our children. That's hard to do if you have somebody coming in a couple times a month."

The congregation believes the rabbi to help them to do that is Bolton, who sang opera in Canada before becoming a rabbi. "I was on national television," she said. "I met Chuck and Di."

The first notion she might be drawn to ministry came when she was hired as a substitute cantor at a Reform synagogue. "That was when I first saw a woman rabbi leading a service," she said.

She saw the rabbinate as an opportunity for her to combine her growing interest in Judaism with her activism in women's issues.

Ordained in 1996, Bolton comes to Baltimore from the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, where she taught courses in worship and founded a center exploring the interaction among the performing and visual arts, literature and the liturgy. At Beit Tikvah, Bolton sees her role during these High Holidays as a rabbi who will use this background to facilitate a religious experience for its members.

"Sermons are not frankly the priority," she said. "My priority is to attempt to craft a ritual experience that, if it is not transformative in the moment, will at least open up the possibility for transformation."

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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