Beth El—The Heights Synagogue’s 20th Anniversary — Karen Kugelman

D’var Torah – Parashat Bereshit – Oct. 6, 2018
Beth El — The Heights Synagogue’s 20th Anniversary
Karen Kugelman

Our parsha is about beginnings and origins: the beginning of the very universe and of our world, the origins of humankind, the animals, the naming of things, the origin of sex and of death.

There’s an embarrassment of riches here for anyone giving a d’var Torah.

But despite that wealth of material, I’m going turn my back on all of it, and I’m going to talk about another origin story.

This story of beginnings is about us – about Beth El – The Heights Synagogue. Because exactly 20 years ago, on Shabbat Bereshit 1998 – 5759, we began the grand adventure that is our congregation, which was joined together from two pieces: the former Congregation Beth El, and a little group that called itself “Heights Synagogue.”

I remember it as a hot and sunny September day; the service ran too long, because we didn’t quite know what we were doing – and I remember worrying that there was not going to be enough food for the flash crowd that showed up for our maiden voyage.

Lisa Berusch’s first d’var Torah referred to the description of the earth as tohu v’vohu – chaos – and she laughingly acknowledged that our maiden voyage was a little chaotic, too.

I wanted to mark the occasion of completing our first two decades of congregational life and look back and reminisce a little. And the first thought I have is wow – no one expected us to last this long! But just look around at us.

We have many of the founding generation here today, and we were all so much younger then. In 1998, Leon Gabinet was a strapping 71-year old!

Looking back, what is striking to me is our resolve. We all had determination and a commitment to create a combined worship group in the Heights that would be a meld of tradition and innovation.

And we had energy:

• to launch the process that brought our beloved Rabbi Adler and his dear wife, Nili z”l, to us;
• to sit in endless meetings;
• to raise the money we needed;
• to strike a deal with the Jewish Community Center for our worship space at the old Mayfield facility.

And what a space that was. Most of the precious Beth El sefer Torahs that are now in our arons, and all the memorial plaques were put in storage when the old Beth El building on Chagrin was sold, because for our first five years at the Mayfield JCC, we were literally a shul in a box.

All of our stuff was in boxes, which came out of two JCC closets every Shabbos.

In those early days, whoever got to shul first on Saturday morning wheeled out the little wooden aron kodesh. Next, we had to assemble the reading table from three large pieces of wood. The Tupperware bins of kitchen equipment were schlepped out; and then out rolled the carts with the trusty Birnbaum siddurim. We did this for five years.

And sometimes our use of the JCC social hall had some colorful pairings with other events that were going on in the building. Remember the erev Purim when a very spirited Amway convention was going on at the same time across the lobby in the theater space?

We surmounted the challenge of not having our own space in many creative ways. I remember standing at the sink at Shulamit Magnus’s house and washing pots and pans after our first scholar in residence weekend, which was generously sponsored by the Tobin-Pepper family and partly held at Shulamit’s home.

We had scads of little children in the babysitting room at the Mayfield J in those early days: little Kugelmans, Davidsons, Wachters, Berusch’s, Gelles’s, Michelsons, Smalls, Rabinowitzes, Shilohs, Pressmans, Lugasys, Preusses, Schmitts, Natan Kohn Magnus, little Blooms, Birkner-Macks and lots (and lots) of little Palevskys.

And there were older kids, too – Nicole Palevsky, Benj Bloom, Josh and Sam Falck, Rick and Ali Jennings; Liora Lugasy. These tweens and teens seemed like elder statesmen to our toddlers and grade-schoolers

Now, many of those kids are college age and older, some are married, some with children of their own. But at the old Mayfield JCC, the little ones all sat in a group at little nursery school tables and nicely ate their pita and hummus at kiddush.

They were watched over with amusement by so many from the former Beth El Congregation who cast their lot in with a bunch of younger upstarts. Many from that generation are no longer with us, but they helped give our congregation shape and without them we wouldn’t be here.

The spirit of compromise that shapes us today was born in those early years when we were all feeling our way, and trying create a congregation — a kehilla that spoke to all of us.

I want to particularly speak these names, all of blessed memory: Jim Saunt; Marvin Warshay; Mrs. Clara Dick; Harvey Mendel; Dr. Henry Goldhirsch; Dr. Robert Kurzbauer; Francine and Meyer Goldberg; Nate Starkman.

They and others whose names I may have unintentionally omitted are in the World to Come, but they left their mark on this congregation.

And of course, many of those pioneers from “Old Beth El” are still with us – Leon, of course, and Adi and Judith Gerblich, Irv and Edith Kushner, Prof. Morrie Shanker, and Mrs. Toby Oshun, and Ieda Warshay — a longtime friend of the congregation that was so important to Marvin. And the legacy of Jim Saunt definitely lives on here, in his beloved daughter Jamie and her family, and his sister Honey and her family.

We also must recognize that without the leadership of Rabbi David Genuth, of blessed memory, who led “Old Beth El” for so many years, we wouldn’t be here. That legacy continues through his son, Dr. Saul Genuth, and his grandson, Joel Genuth, whose contributions to the shul are legion.

At this point, I’ll get scholarly just for a minute. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Saks points out that the early chapters of the Book of Bereshit focus on two stories: Adam and Eve, and Cain and Abel. Both are about a specific kind of failure.

Of Adam and Eve, the text relates that they are caught in their sin, and they hide. Adam blames Eve. Eve blames the serpent. Each insists that it’s not their fault. Adam and Eve deny personal responsibility.

Then we have the tragic story Cain and Abel, which is the first of many sibling rivalry stories in our Chumash. This one leads to murder. Afterwards, Cain does not deny personal responsibility like Adam and Eve. He does not say, it was not my fault.” Instead, saying “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he denies moral responsibility. In effect Cain asks why he should be concerned with the welfare of anyone but himself.

If the failure of responsibility is the problem, Rabbi Saks asks, what is the solution? And the answer, he suggests, is moral leadership.

This congregation has been blessed by a succession of stalwart leaders, each “giving of their time, talents and resources,” as we daven each week — and their unique gifts.

Our first president, Leon Gabinet, was our Moshe Rabbenu , stitching our merged congregations together with wisdom and his steady vision of an invigorated entity, modern in outlook, traditional in character. His insight and his leadership continue to this day.

Leon’s successor, Lisa Berusch, led with consummate diplomacy; who can forget her deft touch in creating consensus at meetings that could be contentious. Who can forget her gracefully pregnant self, carrying the sefer Torah out of the aron kodesh at the Mayfield J and leading it in joyful parade between the metal folding chairs?

Later, we were much more comfortable when an anonymous donor endowed us with the red banquet chairs we use to this day for our overflow seating.

Our next president, Gil Preuss, brought all the management skills of his MBA training and his Weatherhead School professorship to bear on forging the determination to purchase and renovate this building, and later helping to lead the capital campaign that made its initial improvements possible.

Who remembers that hot summer day in 2003, right before we moved in here? Marvin Palevsky uprooted the rows of theater seats from this sanctuary. Then, armed with screwdrivers and drills we remade the space in our own conception: half-circles, facing each other — a symbiosis, each side feeding off the other side’s spiritual energy.

I remember Gil was there, and Bill Schmitt, and Joe Buchwald Gelles, Ed Small, and Jack Valancy and I remember how Mia Buchwald Gelles worked out the complex geometry and measurements of the new configuration. It has stood us in good stead.

Jack Valancy was our longest serving and longest-suffering president. He shepherded us for more years than anyone had a right to expect. As a management consultant, Jack was perfectly situated to bring his unique talents to bear, regularizing our processes and procedures, getting us on track financially. And the windows we have – installed on Jack’s watch. Jack always said, in the words of his forbearers, that what we needed was cross-ventilation – and that’s what we got.

Jack also liked to say that there was something very special about being “present at the creation” — Bereshit — and Jack certainly was.

He was the first treasurer of the Heights Synagogue group. Jack was entrusted to hold the first money that a group of young families ever put in the kitty toward the dream of a congregation – a dream that began to be fulfilled when we were brought together by Ed Small and others, with the Beth El folks.

When we arrived at this building 15 years ago, Laura Gooch was our construction manager par excellence. She patiently endured the trials and tribulations of our first major renovation, overseeing the myriad details of a huge three-story construction job that resulted in a new entryway and our elevator – an inclusive improvement that was funded by the foundation established in memory of the Weils, who were longtime members of “old” Beth El, and the parents of our congregation’s good friend, Gabi Weil Hays.

And through our entire 20 years, we have had only three newsletter editors: first, Lisa; then Laura for many years; and then Carol Bruml – each, as Jack would say, was present at the creation.

The last decade of course has seen expert presidential leadership from Scott Wachter, Sherry Ball, Eran Shiloh and Erica New, and now Robin Dubin and Bud Stern.

Each has devoted countless hours to leading us and sustaining us and bringing us to this time.

And we continue to amaze ourselves and impress others with the devotion of our staff and of our volunteers, and all those who put out mailings, read the Torah, organize events, construct sukkahs, clean the kitchen, send out tickets, field the voice-mail messages, find the speakers, bar-b-que the ribs, run the classes, compose the flyers, cook the food, sit on the Board, round up the Torah readers, patch the ceilings, wrangle the d’var givers, raise the money, balance the books, hand out the aliyahs, lead the services, find the new rabbi and attend all those meetings (all those meetings, all those meetings) …… and more.

But that’s all history. Now, we have to look forward.

We are about to forge the next 20 years, and the ones after that. On Shabbat Bereshit 2038, what will we look like? Who will our leaders be? Who will be the next generation?

The haftorah we recently read as part of our joyous Simchat Torah service included the words of Ha Shem to Yehoshua drawn from the book of Shoftim (Judges): “Rak chazak v’ematz me’od:”: “Only strengthen yourself and persevere very much.”

And so I’ll conclude with that as my words for each and every one of us going forward: chazak v’ematz. And Shabbat Shalom.

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