'Shopping' for a synagogue works well for busy Manatee newcomers

rdymond@bradenton.comAugust 26, 2013 

MANATEE -- The first thing Alan Rubin did when he knew he was moving from Virginia to Bradenton is to do a Google search of Manatee and Sarasota synagogues.

He quickly discovered he could tour nine area Jewish congregations ranging from Bradenton to North Port at the Synagogue Council of Sarasota-Manatee's annual community open house Sunday.

Rubin and his mother, Judy, arrived at Bradenton's Temple Beth El at 4200 32nd St. W. where they were met at the door by no fewer than 13 Temple Beth El tour guides.

"This is fantastic," said Judy, who also lives in the Bradenton area, of the reception accorded her and her son.

Given tight modern schedules, having one-stop shopping for a spiritual home was a welcome feature in the open house, the Rubins said.

The Synagogue Council started this open house program several years ago.

"This is a wonderful opportunity to tour their facilities, meet the clergy and the lay leadership of these synagogues," said Laurie Lachowitzer, president of the Synagogue Council.

After about an hour at Temple Beth El, Rubin and his mother said they had a clearer idea of what they wanted to do.

"I can see myself volunteering my time here," said Alan Rubin, who has a master's degree in special education and works with adults with disabilities.

"Temple Beth El has a nice, small community atmosphere," Judy Rubin said. "Some places you visit are too Yuppie. They seem too set, too cliquish. This feels like a family."

The Rubins were invited to tour the grounds of Unity Church In The Woods, where Temple Beth El, along with 16 other religious organizations, hold services.

Another newcomer, Rob Taylor, who just moved to Bradenton from Ohio eight weeks ago, joined the Rubins on the tour given by Temple Beth El Executive Vice President Sandy Clark.

Awesome beauty

The newcomers were surprised at the size and natural beauty of the Unity Church In The Woods campus, and said they were a bit awestruck by what Clark called, "The Big Sanctuary," where Temple Beth El holds its largest services of the year: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

The sanctuary seats roughly 500 and Temple Beth El can use the audiovisual features of the hall.

Temple Beth El uses a smaller fixed sanctuary seating about 60 for regular services.

"We like to call ourselves the synagogue with the small shul on the big property," Clark said.

Clark told a story that transfixed the visitors.

In 2011, there were 12 religious organizations at Unity Church In The Woods and the leaders of all 12 held a prayer service on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

"It was not a dry-eye service," Clark said. "Even the imam from an area Muslim mosque came to be part of the service."

Later, the Rubins and Taylor said it was a plus Temple Beth El is part of shared Unity Church In The Woods campus.

"The world could take a lesson from this," said Taylor, newly hired as Manatee County information systems technology director for libraries.

The 17 Church In The Woods organizations, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims, are a story in themselves, Clark said.

"Temple Beth El was very welcoming," said Taylor, who said he will go with Temple Beth El. "I have never met a more open, warm, caring group."

Shopper ready

The tour guides warmed up to prospective members by sharing insights about their synagogues.

Temple Beth El, Bradenton's first synagogue, started 39 years ago. It's a reform congregation with about 80 families and roughly 110 members. The congregation has been at Unity Church In The Woods for five years after selling its former property on 75th Street West.

A synagogue can set itself apart in a competitive field with a mascot and Temple Beth El has "Lady," a sweet dog owned by Zed Kesner.

Lady greeted all potential members.

"She loves challah," member Jonas Ellis said, referring to challah bread, a Jewish favorite.

The members also spoke highly of Temple Beth El Rabbi Harold Caminker and Cantor Alan Cohn.

"We have a wonderful rabbi and a great cantor," said member Sheila Kovalsky.

"Our rabbi believes in the words he says," said Kesner.

Caminker is starting his third year at Temple Beth El, Clark said.

Temple Beth El member Kate Richmond chose the Jewish faith in 2000 and went through the conversion process at Temple Beth El.

"It's a family," Richmond said of the synagogue. "We stick together and help each other."

Eight other synagogues receiving potential new members Sunday included: Humanistic Judaism and Congregation Kol HaNeshama of Sarasota, Congregation Ner Tamid of Bradenton, Temple Beth El of North Port, and Temple Beth Sholom, Temple Emanu-El and Temple Sinai of Sarasota.

Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 6686

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