The congregation recently held its first Shabbat service in its new home.
Kehillat Etz Chayim was formed in 2018 as a Modern Orthodox congregation serving Huntington Woods, Oak Park and surrounding areas, guided by the rabbinic leadership of Rabbi Asher Lopatin.
Lopatin was transitioning from a job in New York running a Modern Orthodox rabbinical seminary and looking at different possibilities when a group from Detroit were in search of a rabbi.
“For whatever reason, they didn’t fit into any of the wonderful synagogues in Detroit. We have great synagogues, Orthodox, Modern Orthodox, centrist Orthodox, but this group just did not feel they fit in,” Lopatin said. “I met with them, and they said they wanted to start a new shul and they wanted me to be the rabbi. So I was excited to come to Detroit to start this new shul.
“It was a group of people who wanted their kids to love synagogue, to love Judaism and to have a great connection with the rabbi. It was a group that wanted to find Judaism, Shabbat davening and synagogue life joyous and happy and fulfilling, and that’s what we work on at Kehillat Etz Chayim.”
Kehillat Etz Chayim is a full-service community, but as far as the synagogue itself, where the prayers are, it’s mainly on Shabbat and holidays with the occasional Sunday morning or Monday morning service. The services are focused on Shabbat, but classes are scheduled throughout the week.
Kehillat Etz Chayim recently had a Rosh Chodesh series for women and is now starting another series surrounding great figures and rabbis in Jewish history. They also bring in scholars-in-residence and visiting scholars on a regular basis.
Lopatin, who also works as executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council/AJC, says Kehillat Etz Chayim provides a joyous atmosphere more than anything.
“We offer a close community of people who invite each other over for Shabbat. When new people come, they’re invited for Shabbat. When there’s a single, and when they’re at Kiddush, they get invited over for a Shabbat meal with a family. When there are new families, we bring them a gift and welcome them. It’s a welcoming synagogue. We’re nonjudgmental, and we certainly emphasize that and to come as you are.”
Kehillat Etz Chayim has met in members’ homes and used Congregation Beth Shalom’s small chapel for Shabbat morning and holiday services for a while, but recently purchased a building of its own in north Oak Park.
The last Shabbat in August was the first Shabbat that Kehillat Etz Chayim spent in its new space. They’re planning to do a major renovation of the new space that could put them back at Beth Shalom for a few months during that time, but at least for the next several months, they are full-time in the new space.
About 40 families belong to Kehillat Etz Chayim.
“They’re wonderful people, eager to participate — whether that’s helping schlep things from one location to another, contributing to Kiddush or contributing to the building,” Lopatin said. “When I give a class, I know that people are going to ask questions and shout out different things — always in a positive, helpful light.
“It’s a joyous, positive group, whether it’s little kids at Tot Shabbat or slightly older kids for the Kids Kehilla we offer — whether it’s from that age to seniors to people in their 80s, people are happy to be here, and that’s very important.”
One thing Lopatin finds interesting is the ability to attract people from all different locations and still be connected in a meaningful way.
“We’re in Oak Park, geographically we’re close to Berkley, we’re just across the street from Huntington Woods, people walk to the synagogue from Royal Oak, someone actually walked last week from Birmingham. We love to have people from all over and we’re excited to have this sort of geographic ability to bring different types of communities together.”