Beth Chai Jewish Humanist Congregation of Greater Washington takes a unique approach to education and member engagement through multiple programs and by viewing education through a lens that often differs from more traditional practices.
The Bethesda-based congregation, led by Rabbi Deborah Bodin Cohen, has a lot happening. For example, Cohen created new teen and senior groups and has been engaging in Israel-related discussions across various ideological backgrounds.
“As a Jewish humanist congregation, we focus a lot more on the cultural and historic aspects of Judaism than more of the ritualistic parts of it,” Rabbi Cohen said.
Cohen practices what she preaches, with some of her congregation’s educational material being derived from books she’s authored on topics like Jewish texts and recent ones focusing on contemporary Jewish heroes.
The rabbi is also an editor at Berman House, which she noted is the largest publisher of Jewish books. Cohen says that spending so much time with Jewish stories leads to her thinking about her congregation and ways to incorporate the themes that overlap between the stories and what her congregants are learning about.
Her experience with the community and Jewish books allows her to tailor lessons featuring her work to best meet the educational needs of her congregants across multiple demographic categories.
“I also use the material that I’ve developed for writing a book for my adult education topics and for working with kids in the classroom. The scenes of the books that I’ve written are things that I also talked about more informally in a class setting,” Cohen said. “It’s a two-way thing because since I’m part of a congregation, I feel like I get a sense of the pulse of the membership and what they’re interested in, and that also helps when I’m writing. It gives me a chance to really think about how a book might be used in a in a synagogue setting or for kids of a certain age.”
Another key feature of the synagogue’s practices deals with B’nai Mitzvah, and Beth Chai’s program gives children the option to do a presentation on a topic of their choice, rather than memorize and recite Torah verses.
“Because we have limited time in our Sunday school, we don’t emphasize Hebrew learning as part of our curriculum in large part because we feel like if we focus a lot on learning how to read Hebrew, the kids aren’t going to ever be able to translate to Hebrew with the amount of time that we can give them, and so it’s not really like an intellectual activity for them. It’s more of a memorization activity,” Cohen said.
Children in the program are also allowed to do Torah readings if they wish, but most opt to do the project and become teachers for the community on topics like Jewish jazz music and other subjects that they spend several months becoming experts in.
Cohen said that the personalization of the children picking topics that interest them serves as a great learning experience that they want to put a lot of effort into, and it provides an intellectual challenge to critically think and learn outside of what normally could happen with Torah readings that can be memorization without learning.
Beth Chai has also done a lot of recent work to strengthen community engagement among its members, which became very relevant during the pandemic.
The synagogue created both a senior group and a teen group to allow older members to participate despite the pandemic and to retain teen interest past their B’nai Mitzvahs.
“We’ve always been very much of an intergenerational congregation. What we found after the pandemic was that some of the older members of the congregation weren’t 100% comfortable with being with the younger people when numbers weren’t great as far as COVID was concerned. And so, they decided that they could Zoom in … but they were missing that community contact. So, they started a senior group,” Cohen said.
The group meets once a month and discusses topics that are important to them at various people’s homes.
The teen group was also created to bring more of a connection between the younger members, as Cohen said that many of them had friendships from having grown up through Sunday school together. To give them more of an avenue to stay connected through a Jewish lens, the teen group was formed to do monthly community service or social justice work.
Beth Chai, like most synagogues around the country, is dealing with the fallout from the conflict in Israel and is navigating the situation through group discussions across a wide range of political perspectives.
The synagogue has held several Zoom calls where they discussed the wide range of emotions people felt, and it seems indicative of the collective, thoughtful and intellectual environment Beth Chai looks to create.
“Our congregation has people from lots and lots of different sort of backgrounds and political views … when everything happened on Oct. 7, it was clear that there were people who had very strong emotions about it. We have members of the congregation that are Israeli or have a lot of Israeli family. And we also have congregation members who have Arab friends. And so, it became a topic that was emotional for people and that folks wanted to talk about … We’ve had some great conversations that have come out of those [sessions]. We’ve been just kind of opening it up for conversation and checking in with people, seeing how they’re feeling about things … and it really brought the congregation together,” Cohen said.