One Year and Growing
Kol Ami and B’nai Israel celebrate shared programming, volunteerism, friendship and space.
What began as a simple handshake between two cousins from different synagogues has expanded into a long-term, successful connection between a pair of West Bloomfield congregations.
The High Holidays marked the first anniversary of the official start of a joint operating agreement between Temple Kol Ami (TKA) and the year-old B’nai Israel Synagogue of West Bloomfield (BI).
It was not a merger of the two congregations, but an arrangement allowing the then-brand new B’nai Israel shared use of the building owned by Kol Ami.
“The initial agreement was made after Kol Ami member Lee Schottenfels suggested the idea to his cousin B’nai Israel member (Dr.) Jeffrey Eisman (both of West Bloomfield) at a family wedding,” said BI president and volunteer executive director, Linda Jacobson of West Bloomfield. “They shook hands on it, and brought the idea to their congregations.”
But the plan was never for B’nai Israel to merely rent space.
“Our goal was always to integrate together as many things as we could in terms of programming and social and educational events,” Jacobson said.
The combined 340-member families at Kol Ami and 126 member units at B’nai Israel are enjoying making it work.
“Our relationship with B’nai Israel is such a positive one,” said Paul Gross of Farmington Hills, TKA’s second vice president. “They have a vibrant, active congregation, and we have come together for some wonderful joint programming. Most recently, we had a joint family camp weekend that was a great experience for all involved.”
“Our services are separate because B’nai Israel is a Conservative congregation and Kol Ami is Reform, so obvious religious differences preclude some sharing,” Jacobson said. “But we have an interesting partnership, both in establishing new programs and in inviting one another to join in each of our events, with a goal of seeing what we can do together.”
This potential was integral in B’nai Israel’s connection to the 45-year-old Kol Ami, according to BI vice president Frank Ellias of Farmington Hills. “Part of the attraction was the ability to create a greater mass of children for combined youth programming as well as adult education and family and social action programming.”
In the past year, the congregations volunteered at Yad Ezra together and members of B’nai Israel helped out when Kol Ami hosted homeless individuals from the South Oakland Shelter.
“B’nai Israel had a coffeehouse and started a book club that Kol Ami members attended and our members came to an event to support their school,” Jacobson said. “We are included in everything from their sisterhood and family events to their knitting group.”
Recently they came together for a pre-Thanksgiving cooking demonstration and tasting led by B’nai Israel members. And in April, the two congregations are planning a joint Jewish Heritage Trip to Prague and Budapest.
“Our first year together has exceeded our expectations and we are just getting started,” Ellias said. “B’nai Israel has benefitted significantly from the friendship and support of Kol Ami.”
Making It Work
Juggling use of the shared building on Shabbat and holidays involves using an internal calendar to coordinate the logistics of celebrations and programming.
Kol Ami typically uses the sanctuary on Friday nights. B’nai Israel holds services there on Saturday mornings, while a smaller group of TKA members meet for services and Torah study in the building’s chapel.
Each synagogue uses a different set of siddurim (prayer books) and Chumashim (book-bound Torahs), stored on rolling carts in the back of the sanctuary.
B’nai Israel has a separate kosher kitchen area in the building.
“If we are both in the building and one has something that fills the parking lot, we share the cost of a shuttle that brings the others from parking spaces at Sheiko Elementary School down the road,” Jacobson said.
“We have youth services on Shabbat and holidays, which we hold in downstairs classrooms. If they have lunch in the social hall, we have Kiddush downstairs.”
Between 80 and 110 B’nai Israel congregants attend services on Shabbat, and the chapel seated only 40-50.
On weeks when Kol Ami hosted a Saturday morning b’nai mitzvah, B’nai Israel — whose Shabbat morning crowd was too large for the chapel — rented space at nearby Sheiko Elementary School. They transported holy objects, prayer books, Torahs and food for post-service lunch to the school and back.
But a novel joint program that included the renovation and expansion of the building’s chapel — which now seats 125 — eliminated the need to use the school, except on the High Holidays when both congregations have a large crowd.
A newly renovated chapel, reconfiguration of administrative space and construction of a BI office was completed just before the High Holidays, and work on the social hall will be finished in the next several months, both with input from B’nai Israel member and interior designer David Weiss of Interiorcorp in West Bloomfield.
“The social hall’s renovation will include decorating, new carpeting, wall treatments and replaced storage areas,” said Lee Schottenfels, TKA third vice president and chair of the renovations committee, along with TKA board secretary Gail Raben of Commerce and BI’s Jacobson.
The project, overseen by TKA member Joel Smith of Neumann/Smith Architecture in Southfield, is the result of a fundraising campaign that included donors from both TKA and BI.
“The more than $100,000 cost is shared by both congregations,” Schottenfels said.
The current construction is actually a continuation of work scheduled by Kol Ami before B’nai Israel joined in.
“Five years ago, we did a building campaign with plans drawn for a major addition and renovation. The school wing, completed about three years ago was phase one. Now we are at the beginning of phase two, while plans for work on the building’s kitchen, sanctuary and other areas are on the drawing board.”
Initially, B’nai Israel entered into a one-year joint operating agreement. “Now that we have joined together in the renovation project, we renegotiated our joint agreement to 2015,” Jacobson said. “We are not looking to stop.”
Added Schottenfels, “We are both looking for a long-term partnership in terms of space availability, shared programming and presentation to the Jewish community.”
B’nai Israel was formed largely of members who had previously attended services at Congregation Shaarey Zedek’s West Bloomfield facility, which was sold last year when the synagogue consolidated its operations into its Southfield campus.
A group of those members originally came to the synagogue from Congregation B’nai Israel, which was established in Pontiac in 1934, moved to West Bloomfield in 1975 and merged with CSZ in the early 1990s.
Newly formed last year as B’nai Israel Synagogue of West Bloomfield, the congregation came to the Kol Ami building after searching for a place near enough to the old location so Shabbat-observant congregants could continue to walk there for services.
Traditional, participatory and lay-led services are run by Rabbi Jonathan Berger, who serves as B’nai Israel’s rabbi. His primary professional commitment is to Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, where he has been rabbi in residence since 2006. At B’nai Israel, in addition to running the service and teaching Torah on Shabbat mornings, he provides ongoing halachic (Jewish legal) guidance to the synagogue and its members. Member volunteers assign parts for Shabbat and daily services, assemble a yahrtzeit list and perform other religious and administrative tasks.
Daily member-led morning and evening services are held, as are weekday morning breakfasts and lunch following Saturday morning services.
“Virtually all of our member families regularly attend Shabbat services,” Ellias said. “We had over 400 people on the High Holidays. While our numbers exceeded our original projections, we would not enjoy the breadth of programming we have without the support of Kol Ami.”
Inside the sanctuary are two separate boards of yahrtzeit names: one for TKA and the other including plaques donated from the start of B’nai Israel in Pontiac.
Two Torahs, donated by Pontiac B’nai Israel members, came with the congregation. The ner tamid (eternal light) that first hung in Pontiac and later in the CSZ-BI building, along with kosher kitchen supplies, were given to the congregation by CSZ, which also loaned B’nai Israel 225 siddurim and 225 Chumashim.
The books were returned to CSZ in mid-November last year after B’nai Israel purchased its own.
“We raised $32,000 last October to purchase 250 each of our own siddurim and Chumashim, in addition to five megillot books, a dozen child-sized Torahs and other ritual items,” Jacobson said.
B’nai Israel is a self-sustaining congregation operating on membership dues and member donations. Its first executive board includes Jacobson, Ellias, treasurer David Saperstein and secretary Debra Singer.
It has no religious school, but some area Conservative synagogues offer member-rate tuition for B’nai Israel members.
“We additionally offer supplementary tuition for these families,” Jacobson said. B’nai Israel families also receive member rates at Hillel’s Early Childhood Center.
Strength In Numbers
Reflecting on the first anniversary of the congregations’ association, Kol Ami Rabbi Norman T. Roman said, “It has been a year of dialogue, partnership, give and take and discussion, consistently marked by respect and openness. Each of our congregations is stronger and healthier, I believe, because of the experiences we have shared in making this relationship work.”
In addition to sharing educational, cultural and social programs, some religious programming has overlapped.
B’nai Israel’s Rabbi Berger said, “One of our highlights of the past year was the Tikkun Leil Shavuot (Shavuot learning); it offered a model for coordinated educational programming. Rabbi [Ariana Jaffe] Silverman of Kol Ami taught, as did I and several B’nai Israel members, and congregants from both synagogues came to learn.”
The two congregations jointly observed Purim, and B’nai Israel invited members of Kol Ami to attend tashlich (Rosh Hashanah ritual of casting away sins), which Kol Ami doesn’t plan on its own.
Kol Ami members join the B’nai Israel congregation each week for the Shabbat lunch they hold after their separate Saturday morning services.
And on the second day of Rosh Hashanah this year, when many Reform congregations, including Kol Ami, join together in a communitywide service, a few Kol Ami members, including Rabbi Roman and his wife, Lynne, instead participated that day in the service run by their friends at B’nai Israel.
By Shelli Liebman Dorfman, Contributing Writer