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As demographics are dwindling and the quest for spiritual fulfillment is rising, one Conservative synagogue on Long Island’s south shore is beginning its own search for enlightenment. Under the leadership of Rabbi Stephen Listfield, Congregation Beth-El in Massapequa, New York is taking a good hard look at itself in an effort to become a “regional synagogue that will attract Jews looking for something different,” according to a co-president of Beth-El.
“The warmth of the congregants at Beth-El is perhaps our greatest strength. It is this strength that will lead to a new, invigorated vision for this synagogue,” says Rabbi Listfield, the interim rabbi who most recently was on sabbatical in Atlanta and was hired by Beth-El to lead it through a year of transition.
The 55-year-old synagogue, once home to 475 families, has been grappling with a diminishing observant local Jewish community for many years. Now only a 160-family member congregation even after merging with the Lindenhurst Hebrew Congregation five years ago, the congregation recently vetoed a merger with another nearby Conservative synagogue that is itself the result of a three-synagogue merger.
“Congregation Beth-El has always been a trend-setter on Long Island,” says one of three co-presidents of the synagogue. “We were the first traditional Conservative synagogue to become fully egalitarian; we have the only kosher food pantry on Long Island, and our members just did not want to lose our uniqueness and innovative spirit in an unknown larger entity.”
Instead, the congregation is trying to re-invent itself. Dwindling membership means dwindling dollars for operating costs. The congregation has just become a one-clergy synagogue, regrettably letting its cantor of 18 years go. “We had many difficult decisions to make,” said Beth-El’s second co-president. “Our congregants were engaged in a lot of heated discussions about the future of our community.”
Those difficult decisions included allowing the rabbi’s contract to expire as well, so that the synagogue could begin anew with a fresh vision. The board created a “Breisheit” (in the beginning) Committee to propose an alternative plan to merger and while much still has to be done, the concept is to create a “regional synagogue that will attract Jews looking for something different,” says Beth-El’s third co-president. “The idea is to increase our spirituality and engage more people from the surrounding communities. We intend to do a lot of experimentation this year, under the leadership of Rabbi Listfield,” says the co-president.
The Breisheit Committee was inspired by B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan and other Conservative synagogues in Westchester and California that have successfully reached many Jews through its spiritual use of instrumentation during prayer and their commitment to community service.
Recognizing the significant journey ahead, the congregation, guided by United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism – the Conservative movement’s governing body — decided to hire an interim rabbi for one year whose major purpose will be to guide the congregation in defining its vision and to bring healing to a community that has been greatly impacted by the tough decisions it has been forced to make, ultimately enabling the synagogue to make an informed decision about who to hire as its new permanent rabbi.
Rabbi Stephen Listfield has been a pulpit rabbi for 36 years and has a history of innovation. He brings a love of Jewish community, wisdom, intellect and a sense of humor to Beth-El, and sees his mandate for the year as bringing “steadiness and exuberance.”
“The membership is ready to embrace and explore new methods to heighten spirituality and build community in the sanctuary and in their neighborhoods and I am blessed and privileged to help guide them on this path,” says Listfield.
Reprinted from the Massapequan Observer — September 2010