Bet Israel is the only Masorti congregation among Netanya’s 200 synagogues. Here, everyone who wants to has a chance to participate.
We are a pluralistic, egalitarian congregation with mostly English-speaking and many Russian-speaking members in addition to those who are fluent in Hebrew. Services are conducted in Hebrew from a Hebrew-English siddur used by the Conservative Movement in the United States, so it is easy for those not fluent in Hebrew to follow along. We also have Hebrew-Russian siddurim. Part-time professional clergy conduct Shabbat morning services on alternate weeks and congregants lead the service the rest of the time. We have a professional Torah reader, but congregants sometimes fill in to read Torah and always chant the haftorah. Members of the kehillah have the opportunity to offer a d’var Torah on weeks when professional clergy is not present.
Sermons are delivered in the sanctuary in both Hebrew and English—one paragraph in Hebrew, followed by its English translation. The Russian congregants go upstairs to our social hall to hear a sermon in Russian. Announcements, page numbers, requests to stand or sit are made in both Hebrew and English, facilitating participation for our multi-cultural congregants.
As in the Diaspora, Bet Israel and other Masorti congregations in Israel are membership organizations and congregants form a close social group by regularly attending Shabbat services, daily minyanim, and the many holiday and social programs offered. Members of our kehillah come from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain (including England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales), South Africa, Australia, Russia, and a few from Israel. Many have lived in Israel for decades; some are recent olim.
The seeds of the Bet Israel Congregation in Netanya began to sprout in 1971 and in 1977 the first Masorti synagogue of the community opened, originally located on Kikkar HaAtzmaut, our central Independence Square. In 1992 a new magnificent synagogue was dedicated on Yehuda Hanassi and has become the permanent home of the community, located just north of the center in the area of the city where many Anglos live. Since its dedication it has become a magnet for many during weekdays and on Shabatot and holidays.
While all the religious holidays are certainly celebrated at Bet Israel, the state holidays are made meaningful as well. For example, Bet Israel’s annual Yom HaShoah program features a spoken and sung recitation produced by our inimitable Rabbi Emeritus, Ervin Birnbaum, and presented by congregants with such sincerity and feeling, helping us all to process the meaning of this day. The program is open to the community.
Purim is another special time at Bet Israel. Congregants of all ages dress up in costumes, usually homemade, and participate in a lively reading of Megillah Esther followed by a party with music and dancing.
At Bet Israel, women take part in all the services on an equal basis, but on Yom HaAtzmaut, a special service is held that is totally run by the women in the kehillah. Our most recent former co-president, Rachel Holman, leads that service as well as leading services on Friday nights and every other week on Shabbat morning.
There are plenty of social opportunities at Bet Israel. The kehillah hosts many activities that are not specifically holiday related. One of the highlights at Bet Israel is our resident folk singer, the talented Batya Fonda, who offers themed programs of folk music, often in Yiddish and Ladino, with songs in Hebrew as well. She accompanies herself on guitar and always prepares a lecture and often slides and song sheets to educate us and involve us in the music.
Another fascinating program was with American Barry Resnick as guest speaker called “Questioning the Validity of ‘The Mascot,'” based on Barry’s efforts to determine if a man receiving reparations from the Holocaust Claims Conference is really a Jew. During election season, we even had one of the political candidates come to speak to us–Dov Lipman, originally from Maryland, who became a member of the Knesset. (All parties were invited; only Yesh Atid accepted.)
We regularly hold movie nights with “pop-‘n’-popcorn.” For example, we had a showing of the film “Karua’a” about a Jewish-born Catholic priest who wanted to make aliyah.
Every month or six weeks there is a synagogue Kabbalat Shabbat program with a catered dinner. Congregants are encouraged to bring friends and family to these events.
Bet Israel has been the place for non-affiliated Jews to do a bar or bat mitzvah with all members of the family participating. The same is true for Shabbat Chatan (“aufruf”) ceremonies. Netanya’s Tushiyya School for children with special needs holds their bar/bat mitzvah ceremony in our sanctuary in the presence of our warm kehillah. We have a daily minyan available to anyone in the community, member or not, who needs one. The congregation has helped people in need with spiritual and/or monetary help and individuals use their many areas of expertise to help new olim traverse the Israeli bureaucracy and in translating documents from Hebrew to English. Community groups use Bet Israel facilities for activities that also benefit the congregation. Twice per week there are groups that offer Israeli folk dance, one in the morning and one in the evening. Netanya’s English speaking Hadassah chapter, Hadar, holds its monthly meetings in our social hall and co-sponsors Bridge mornings with the congregation, benefiting both groups.
Our significant Russian population at Bet Israel is due to the important work of many decades of Rabbi Emeritus Ervin Birnbaum. As there are about one million Russian emigres in Israel, most of whom had no exposure to religion in the former Soviet Union, we are very proud to have this group as active members of our kehillah. Rabbi Birnbaum has prepared many of the Russian olim for conversion and for bar mitzvah and Bet Israel has hosted these special services with our congregation joyously participating.
Bet Israel has a tie-in with She’arim, Netanya’s Russian outreach program, begun by Rabbi Birnbaum. Several times a year and held at Bet Israel, the synagogue co-sponsors gala concerts with She’arim and the Ministry of Culture featuring Russian artists who perform with orchestras and operas around the world. These very special evenings bring together members of the kehillah, the Russian community and Netanya’s community at-large.
Current projects at Bet Israel include outreach to Conservative congregations in the United States planning missions to Israel to encourage them to visit Netanya and to spend a Shabbat or a Shaharit service with our kehillah, where they will be warmly welcomed. Guests are offered an aliyah to the Torah (such a meaningful part of a trip to Israel), the opportunity to chant haftorah or to lead portions of the service on a weekday morning and they have the opportunity to make new friends who speak their language.
Bet Israel is reaching out to congregations in the Diaspora to facilitate bar/bat mitzvah “twinnings” as a way to involve American Jews in our Israeli kehillah.
We welcome communication from Diaspora Jews planning trips to Israel, considering making aliyah, or looking to rent or purchase a second home in Israel for holidays, summer vacations, or to spend the winters in a warm place among friends. See “Contact” for the way to connect.