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How We Began

Located on tree-lined Beacon Street in Brookline, Massachusetts — a Boston near-suburb with a large and active Jewish population — Temple Beth Zion was founded in 1946 as a Conservative congregation by 14 families who had moved to the area from Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan and felt the need for a shul “within walking distance” of Coolidge Corner and Washington Square.

Brookline’s Jewish community is nearly one hundred years old. Around 1911, enough Jews had moved westward, from Boston’s older Jewish neighborhoods to Brookline’s open spaces, to begin Brookline’s first minyan. Many of these Jewish adventurers were moving, too, from the Orthodoxy they (or their parents) had brought from Eastern Europe, to Conservative Judaism. By the 1920s, Brookline had two synagogues: Temple Ohabei Shalom, and Congregation Kehillath Israel. By 1925, when Kehillath Israel first permitted men and women to sit together, the Conservative movement was clearly gaining followers, and speed. These two temples would be the forerunners of a Jewish population in Brookline which would grown to nearly 25,000 people by the late 1950s. Many of these Jews would have described themselves as Conservative, or were growing toward Conservative Judaism.

Thus, when Temple Beth Zion dedicated its new building (red brick, built in the Greek Revival style, with four white pillars across the front portico) in 1948, it was joining the mainstream of Brookline’s Conservative-minded Jewish community.

According to TBZ member and area historian Michael Alan Ross, author of The Jewish Friendship Trail Guidebook to Boston Area Jewish Historic Sites, “to meet the needs of these Jews, all sorts of community and private resources evolved — ten synagogues, including the original first two; numerous Hebrew schools; Jewish Sunday schools; several Talmud Torah; a Hebrew college; a Jewish community center (albeit, across the line in Brighton’s Cleveland Circle for many years); and a retail area on Harvard Street” featuring Jewish shops such as Irving’s Candy Store, Max’s & Girsh’s Sunnyside Foods, the original Rubin’s Deli, Hecht’s Drug Store, and Bluestein’s Market.

Our Jewish world — at least, the vibrant community which stretched from Kenmore Square to Cleveland Circle — continued to change. Like much of America in the 1960s and 1970s, Brookline’s Jewish community was becoming less conservative — except at Temple Beth Zion.

Despite progressive voices within the congregation, including that of former shul president Gabe Belt, the Conservative movement’s haltingly slow but inexorable inclusion of women in shul life was vehemently opposed by the Temple’s rabbi, who refused to allow women on the bimah.

Eventually, Gabe convinced the rabbi to allow women to lead carefully-selected readings. This “progressive” step was too much for some members, and too little for others. For the shul’s aging population, there were other, more permissive (or less permissive) synagogues to join — in the far-off suburbs (“nearer to the grandkids”), or in sunny, snowless Florida. Those who remained in Brookline could choose from many places to pray, and many chose elsewhere. Temple Beth Zion’s original appeal — “within walking distance” of Coolidge Corner and Washington Square — was less important to Jews who, somehow, got used to the idea of driving on Shabbat.

Fifty years after its founding, many of Temple Beth Zion’s members had moved away, or died.  By the late 1990s, there were approximately 50 elderly members, 12-15 of whom were active. Since that time we have grown to 600 diverse individuals, ranging from nonagenarians to expectant mothers and fathers. The initial growth of TBZ was primarily focused on providing a contemplative adult environment. It continues to be so. However, couples have met and beautiful families have formed. Our members include many single parents, too, and people following single-life paths. Services and activities are populated interfaith couples, gay and lesbian singles and couples and parents, and Jews by choice. Grandmothers and grandfathers (a marvelous connection to our history) fuss over everyone. We embrace our diversity while celebrating our unity as spiritual seekers.

“The Temple Had No Roof”

Based on the 2001 Koleinu article originally written by Judy Wurtman

“The Temple had no roof, only walls, and there was canvas stretched across what would be the ceiling. Heat was pumped in by a heating company that had also donated the tent-like roof. The Holidays were late that year and it was cold. We sat through the services with our coats on.” Gabe Belt, an honored and esteemed member of Temple Beth Zion was describing the first High Holiday services at the Temple which took place in the fall of 1946.

Gabe, the son of one of the founders of the Temple, told how his parents along with 13 other families from Roxbury, Dorchester and Mattapan felt the need for a shul in their part of Brookline. They moved to the Washington Square neighborhood in l945-46 and at that time, there was no shul nearby. The closest synagogue was Kehillath Israel, a long walk for these Shabbat observant Jews.

The need for a local shul was pressing. But there were many problems to be overcome before they could have a place of their own in which to worship. The most pressing of course was lack of money. But even in the forties, there was little available land on which to build in that area. The only piece of property large enough for a synagogue was owned by a man had no love for the Jews and was not inclined to have them going to services next door. Moreover even if he were to sell, it was not certain that a mortgage could be obtained. But eventually the property owner decided to sell; business was not good and he needed the money. To raise the funds to buy the property and to build required patience and persistence. Gabe remembers as a 14 year old going from apartment house to apartment house, looking for Jewish names on the mailboxes. He would ring the doorbells of people he thought might be Jewish and ask for donations. And everyone who was asked gave.

The first High Holiday services of this new congregation took place in the Torf Funeral Home at the corner of Washington and Beacon Street the same year. The Rabbi who conducted the services was a member of Congregation Kehillath Israel; he was paid $100.00 for the three days. “The chapel was full,” said Gabe. “There must have been at least 400 people attending our services.”

The next year, the services took place in the roofless building that was to become Temple Beth Zion. The name was selected from a list provided by an organization overseeing the formation of new synagogues. Two Torahs were donated–one by Sam and Ann Gerson who lived on Summit Avenue and another by Joe and Dave Sargon. The Silverman prayer book was used for the High Holidays and the service was Orthodox with one exception–men and women sat together.  “It was what they were used to in the old shuls in Roxbury or Dorchester,” explained Gabe. “The men didn’t want to be separated from their wives.”

Raising enough money to finish the building of the Temple was, of course, an on-going concern. When the Temple was finally completed in l948, a chapel donated by Saul Aronson was used during the High Holidays for a second service. The sale of tickets for this service and the one in the sanctuary was a major source of funds for the Temple. According to Gabe, 500 people showed up for the combined upstairs and downstairs services.

The Temple Sisterhood, formed by Francis Belt (Gabe’s mother), Lillian Chapman and Gabe’s aunt, Vera Mirkin, put on annual bazaars to raise money . The members of the sisterhood would go from door to door to get donated goods for the bazaar and sell tickets. This event was looked upon as a reliable source of funds as was the annual pre-High Holiday dinner at the Chateau Garod, across the street from TBZ. Potential major donors would be asked to the dinner and plied with good, heavy food and some shnapps. They would, in the words of Gabe who organized these events, ‘become a little mellow and quite generous.’ These dinners could raise as much as $25,000 from 30-40 people.

Gabe was President of the Brotherhood and Temple for twelve years. He was responsible for organizing monthly breakfast meetings at which the participants would get together to eat lox and bagels and listen to local and national speakers. The warden of the Framingham State prison for women spoke, as did Barney Frank in the early days of his political career. There was always a “man of the year” award. Gabe made Man of the Year on January 14, l973. The money raised by these events was used to hire a full time Rabbi and Cantor and start and support a Hebrew School. Hillel Price was the first principal and only teacher of the Hebrew School when it opened, but the baby boom filled the Hebrew school and soon more teachers were hired.

The Temple was a social center for the Jews of the neighborhood as well as a place of worship. There were variety shows, the musical, Fiddler on the Roof was put on in the Brookline High School by members of the congregation (Gabe was the producer), and New Year’s Eve parties at the Temple became a tradition. Until the congregation aged and dwindled in number, Temple Beth Zion played many roles in the lives of the Washington Square Jewish community.

Gabe was a revolutionary in the Temple. The congregation was Conservative; the Rabbis were graduates of the Jewish Theological Seminary. However at a time when there was an increasing acceptance of women playing some role in the service, in the late seventies, the Temple’s Rabbi, Rabbi Rosenberg, was vehemently opposed to women being allowed even a perfunctory role in the service. The Rabbi refused to allow women on the bimah, even to lead responsive readings. The idea of a woman having an aliyah was unheard of. Although girls were allowed to have a Bat Mitzvah, they were restricted to Friday nights and were not allowed to read from the Torah.

Gabe led a movement to permit women to conduct part of the service and encountered great resistance from the Rabbi at that time. However, Gabe felt very strongly that women should not be prohibited from participating in the service. “Women are Jews too and should be allowed to worship equally as do the men.” Although he lost the battle over allowing women to have an aliyah, he at least won permission to have them read parts of the service. This caused such a rift in the congregation that many members who were against this change left.

The once-vibrant congregation went into a decline during the 80’s and early 90’s. According to Gabe, the now adult children of the original congregants moved away as did their retired parents. Death took its toll and as few young Jews were joining, the membership shrank substantially. Curiously, the decline in membership was not due to the paucity of Jews in the neighborhood. They were moving to the Washington Square area in large numbers but according to Gabe, they had little interest in Jewish activities.

But the Temple still had life in it and Gabe, along with Irwin Pless and Joe Wilion, made a decision that was to transform the congregation. They boldly decided to ask an unconventional, “unorthodox rabbi” to become spiritual leader of the declining congregation.

Moshe Waldoks, “Reb Moshe“  joined the rabbinate after careers as an academic, humorist, story-teller, lecturer, television producer, and editor. In the fall of 1996, shortly after receiving smicha, or non-seminary-based ordination, from his teachers, Reb Moshe (with the help of members of a study group) initiated a monthly davening experience called Kehilat Nishmat Hayyim: the Breath of Life Jewish Meditation Community. This monthly group was primarily populated by members of both the Solomon Schechter Day School and Temple Emanuel communities. The intention was to provide a supplemental service to those in the community searching for a more meaningful and intense davening experience.

Initial gatherings of Nishmat Hayyim attracted between 60-80 individuals per event. At the same time this group was establishing itself, Reb Moshe began to work with an unaffiliated family to prepare their son for his bar mitzvah. The service would be held at TBZ as it held fond memories for the father who had also become a bar mitzvah in the shul. This bar mitzvah celebration became a turning point for both the young man and his family, and also for Temple Beth Zion. Kehilat Nishmat Hayyim began meeting at Temple Beth Zion in November 1997. By the end of the year, Gabe Belt, Irwin Pless and Joe Wilion had convinced Reb Moshe that Temple Beth Zion itself was a community worth saving. Reb Moshe agreed, and became the shul’s part-time Rabbi, officiating at two services a month.

For TBZ, change was necessary; and given Reb Moshe’s eclectic, passionate style and love for experiment, changes were made. In a measured and evolutionary manner, the monthly Nishmat Hayyim service became a twice-monthly service. Those early services included meditation, chanting, liturgical experimentation, movement, question-and-answer periods, dyadic prayer, English davening, and other methods to transform the synagogue experience into a truly personal event. (The services, Reb Moshe has noted, are geared to those seeking an immediacy of spiritual experience that too often is lacking in more conventional synagogues.) Word of TBZ’s experimental nature and new-found ruach, or spirit, spread quickly, and by the end of 1998, the temple had gained approximately 200 new members.  By 2005, Temple Beth Zion had grown to more than 500 hundred members.

Click here to read The TBZ Story by Reb Moshe. 

Thu, May 6 2021 24 Iyyar 5781