Bet Chaverim in Canton marks 20 years as a committed Jewish outpost.
When Sarah Liberatore, 13, her sister, Reagan, 16, and Tamar Nemeth, 17, all of Canton, took to the ice last month for a holiday skating exhibition at the town’s famed Arctic Edge Ice Arena where 2009 Olympic gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White train, they took their Jewish identity with them.
In the only performance not set to Christmas music, the three girls showed off their Jewish pride by skating to Chanukah melodies and designing costumes complete with turquoise kippot and white prayer shawls. Their confidence in being outwardly Jewish can be seen as a testament to the dedication of the clergy, educators and families of Reform Congregation Bet Chaverim, who believe there is a space for Jewish life in every corner of Michigan.
These skaters were raised in a Jewish setting that practices “trickle-up” Jewish education from the child to the parent, from the classroom back to the home. It encourages members to be involved in their child’s Jewish education through hands-on projects and experiences, said its longtime leader Rabbi Peter Gluck. It continues to be a supportive atmosphere of communal Passover seders, Chanukah parties and warm, inclusive Shabbat services.
“For the average American Jew, it is a big act of courage to stand up and say or do something Jewish,” Gluck said. “What those skaters did on the ice is the product of experiential Judaism and, in my mind, the best way to assure Jewish continuity.”
Gluck said that for Jewish continuity to be successful, Jewish educators must bring learning out of the textbooks and focus on creating community between family, community and peers.
“There is no standardized Jewish achievement test,” he said. “Judaism is all about coming together as a community.” After all, he added, the original model of a synagogue was to be one of a beit midrash, a place of gathering.
For 20 years, the temple has been Canton’s center for Jewish life and outreach. Since 1995, it has shared the building of the Cherry Hill United Methodist Church in Canton, where it holds its monthly Shabbat services and weekly religious school as well as other programs. The relationship is highly respectful, Gluck said.
Now, the small congregation of about 40 families seeks to grow its congregation to reach out to those in newer neighborhoods who seek connections to Judaism even if they have been disenchanted with larger synagogues or have let their religious affiliations lapse for many years.
The key to its growth, say temple clergy and educators, is a welcoming attitude that meets Jews — and their interfaith partners — wherever they might be on their Jewish journey.
Compared to the Jewish neighborhoods in West Bloomfield, Farmington Hills and Oak Park, Canton may not be thought of as a Jewish population center in Southeast Michigan. And there are no statistics that demonstrate that Jews are moving to this area. However, Gluck points to the high rate of intermarriage as reason to believe there is a new model of a Jewish family to reach out to.
“Canton is not so very off the beaten path for younger families, who are more mobile, transient and intermarried then in past generations,” said Gluck, who noted that in the recent past, Canton was one of the fastest-growing communities in Southeast Michigan. If there are families seeking Jewish life, they will want it conveniently located. So, when families with Jewish members moved to Canton, it was natural to create a congregation, Gluck said.
With the majority of its members in an interfaith marriage, Gluck said his congregation is a mirror image of the most recent Pew Study of American Jewry, which stated that nearly one in every three marriages in the American Jewish community is an interfaith marriage. Gluck, ordained through the Hebrew Union College in 1982, recently earned a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of Michigan by studying the narrative of interfaith families rearing Jewish children. He believes intermarriage is a social issue that the Jewish community must grasp instead of ignore or reject.
About 1.5 million American children are being raised in interfaith families, he said. When these families reach the stage of searching for religious education for their children, every point of association they make with synagogues needs be as warm and welcoming as possible.
“It starts from that first phone call to the synagogue and continues with every clergy and teacher they encounter,” Gluck said. “When you work as a professional in the Jewish community, you’re a social worker. You have to know your community.”
The key to reaching out to Jews and their non-Jewish spouses is not through lots of programming, but though the simple act of being welcoming. Gluck points to lessons of hospitality from the Torah to demonstrate that “the more things change, the more they say the same.”
“Just as we learn from the story of Abraham in the Torah, it is all about welcoming people into the tent,” he said. “People are looking for an emotional response and connection. We miss the point when we think of synagogues as a business.
“In my mind, smaller is better,” Gluck said. He believes this new Jewish demographic coming from intermarried families need smaller synagogues where kids can interact and adults can have conversations and feel connected with one another.
Craig Organ of Garden City is director of the temple’s religious school, which enrolls about 30 children. He agrees that smaller settings can be better for Jewish outreach. He was raised within a large Conservative synagogue in the Philadelphia area. Now he and his second wife, a convert to Judaism, are educating his two children, ages 9 and 12, in the religious school.
In 2015, the temple is adding post-b’nai mitzvah and adult learning classes at the request of members who now wish to deepen their Jewish knowledge.
“At a lot of synagogues, once a child hits bar or bat mitzvah, that child thinks they are done [with synagogue life],” said Organ, who admits that was his path decades ago. Time goes by and they might realize that something is missing.
“Now our family increases our involvement at temple. As we light Shabbat candles every Friday night, I realize I am still on that journey of Jewish learning — and I am on it with my children.”
The temple encourages active parental participation, which starts with doing the shopping and cooking for a Shabbat or holiday meal shared with the congregation, and can lead to deeper involvement, such as leading Shabbat services or doing Torah study.
Longtime temple members like Ray and Barbara Buchalter of Canton are the kind of family Bet Chaverim hopes to continue to attract. The Buchalters joined Bet Chaverim in its fledgling days when the congregation was holding services in a community center. They are an interfaith couple who moved to Canton for its open suburban settings and good school system.
As their two children grew, they chose Bet Chaverim for their religious education as well as a sense of belonging to a community. Ray built the ark used by the synagogue. Barbara, raised as a Christian, became involved first by helping plan temple events and going to services. Eventually, she began to study with Gluck and converted to Judaism.
As a convert, the grassroots structure of Bet Chaverim gave Barbara a supportive community to share in life’s happy and sad occasions. She became a religious school teacher and enjoys her own Jewish studies with the rabbi. Her Hebrew is improving, and she hopes to reach a level of proficiency to have an adult bat mitzvah.
“The thing I love most about Torah study is that there is always room for lots of differing opinions,” she said.
Their daughter Amanda, 19, has memories as early as age 3 of singing at Friday night services, Purim carnivals and her father helping to build the synagogue sukkah.
“I remember looking forward to seeing my Jewish friends at synagogue and making projects at Hebrew school,” said Amanda, who now teaches the youngest children, ages 5-8, the Hebrew alphabet, among other Judaic topics. She also has early childhood memories of making Easter baskets and hanging Christmas stockings with the non-Jewish side of her family, but says her young adult life is focused around Judaism. She attributes this to her upbringing at Bet Chaverim.
“It has always been a warm community for me,” she said. “Now I am on the other side, creating a warm inviting place for Jewish learning for my students. Bet Chaverim remains a big part of my life.”
A freshman at Eastern Michigan University studying communication and theater arts, Amanda continues to explore her Jewish identity by attending programs at Hillel. More than ever, Amanda said Judaism remains at the “forefront of my life.”
For more about Bet Chaverim and its Jewish education program for adults, go to www.betchaverim.com, or call (734) 480-8880.
-By Stacy Gittleman, Contributing Writer