From A Spectrum of Faith, our student-written, photo-narrative about religion in Des Moines
Written by Isaac Enockson and Tim Knepper
Photo by Bob Blanchard (http://www.bobblanchardphotography.com)
Tucked away in an idyllic neighborhood on Cummins Parkway lies the place that Des Moines’ Orthodox Jewish community has called home since 1957, the synagogue of Beth El Jacob. Each Saturday, you’ll find many members walking to and from the Cummins Parkway location instead of operating a motor vehicle on Sabbath, or Shabbat—in observance of Jewish law (halakah). But it may not be this way for much longer. Due to the rising cost of upkeep, the community must now confront the issue of moving to a new location. The seventy remaining families can no longer support a 32,000-square-foot synagogue, explains the synagogue board’s president, Sidney Jacobson. And their nearly six-year rabbi, Leib Bolel, recently assumed a new rabbinate in Scottsdale, Arizona, so that his children could take advantage of a traditional Torah education. Still, the community is resolved to maintain its identity, even if this means moving. Meanwhile, this is home for now.
For over one hundred years, since 1881, Beth El Jacob has offered a welcoming atmosphere and supportive community for those who wish to practice and participate in the Orthodox way of life. This is no small feat, for while Orthodox Judaism is the dominant branch of Judaism in Israel, it is dwarfed in the U.S. by both Reform and Conservative Judaism. Orthodox Jews comprise just 7% of the Jewish population in the Midwest.
As a Modern Orthodox synagogue, or shul, members of Beth El Jacob strive to observe traditional Jewish laws and traditions but live in the modern world. G-d’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai constitutes the Torah—the first five books of the Hebrew Bible—which contain the 613 commandments, or mitzvot, that bind Jews in covenantal relationship with G-d. Orthodox Jews believe that in alongside this “Written Torah,” G-d also revealed to Moses instructions for implementing and interpreting these mitzvot. This “Oral Torah” was passed on from generation to generation until it was finally written down in the first millennium of the common era in several forms, one of the most important of which is the Talmud.
Modern Orthodox Jews do not alter these laws and traditions to accommodate modern values; still, they strive to understand and implement them in a modern world. This distinguishes Modern Orthodoxy both from Ultra-Orthodox Judaism, which does not always strive as ardently to integrate Jewish law and tradition into the modern world, and from Conservative and Reform Judaism, which sometimes adapts Jewish law and tradition to fit contemporary values or mores.
Beth El Jacob observes the traditional within the modern. The shul contains Des Moines’ most established kosher mikvah—a supply of natural water used for rituals. And Beth El Jacob’s rabbi has traditionally overseen Des Moines’ Chevra Kaiddisha, a group dedicated to preparing the bodies of the deceased in the traditional Jewish manner. Given the importance of education within Judaism, the shul also hosts a variety of programs and events geared towards the education of children and adults alike, from its Hebrew Supplement Program for Children to a variety of adult education classes, such as a business ethics class that applies the principles of Judaism to the modern business world. Also notable is Rabbi Bolel’s establishment of Jewish Students on Campus (JSOC), which through outreach at local universities and colleges has educated and encouraged many Jewish students in more traditional forms of practice. For former Rabbi Bolel, it is distinct educational opportunities such as these that reveal the quintessential character of Beth El Jacob.
A prominently positioned sign greets those who enter Beth El Jacob’s social hall. The sign, which came through the congregation’s affiliation with the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, details how to advocate politically for the Nation of Israel. As is the case with most Orthodox communities, Beth El Jacob’s strong support of Israel is fueled by certain viewpoints, yet it also transcends political ideology and partisanship. For Jews, Israel is the Promised Land, given to them by G-d thousands of years ago.
Marble plaques, engraved with the names of those who made significant contributions to build the shul, line its main hallway. These plaques stand in remembrance of Lithuanian immigrants who were integral to the initial success of this community over 100 years ago. Many current members have been connected to Beth El Jacob since birth; some families date their ties back to the very beginning of this community. A long line of small tapestries dedicated to former members also decorates the social hall.
Inside the main sanctuary, a large wooden sculpture commands the eye—the burning bush through which G-d commanded Moses to lead the Israelites out of captivity in Egypt. Floor-to-ceiling stained glass flames flank this sculpture, which stands just above the sanctuary’s Ark of the Covenant. Inside that vessel, G-d’s covenantal relationship with His people is written on the Torah scroll. Deliverance by G-d and relationship with G-d: these are the legacies that found Beth El Jacob.
At Beth El Jacob, most services are held in the smaller chapel rather than in the sanctuary. Here, as well, a representation of the burning bush stands above the Ark. As in the main sanctuary and in accordance with Orthodox practice, a mechitza, or long divider, separates men’s and women’s seating areas. Lining the chapel’s walls, yahtrzeit boards memorialize departed members of the congregation with names inscribed next to tiny bulbs lit in remembrance. History shines forth in these lights.
At the same time, the synagogue’s classrooms and social hall, library and gymnasium indicate that belief is alive in every aspect of daily life at Beth El Jacob.
As we rise for the Amidah—the Orthodox prayer of nineteen blessings recited three times daily, facing Jerusalem—a little dog named Lady, the service-dog of one of the attendants, nuzzles hands and brushes against legs in search of affection. She found plenty during the beginning of the Shabbat service. During that first hour, congregants typically trickle in, wandering the chapel to greet and catch up with one another, and, of course, taking time to pet Lady. During Amidah, however, Lady has to wait.
This mingling of strict adherence to Jewish law and casual informality is characteristic of the people of Beth El Jacob. During the service, for example, men wear their yarmulke, kippah, and prayer shawl, tallit, observing a formal order of readings and prayers. Still, a relaxed and conversational atmosphere reigns.
Communal prayer and Torah study are the main objectives of these Shabbat services. The prayers, psalms, and blessings recited throughout the service are deeply familiar to congregants because, as observant Jews, they view these elements as part of daily life. But certain aspects of the service, such as the Amidah prayer and reading from the Torah, can only occur if there is a quorum (minyan)—ten males over the age of 13.
Each morning, men gather at the synagogue to pray and study the Torah. They strap small boxes, tefillin, containing important Torah passages to their forehead and left arm during morning and evening prayers. Every Friday at sundown, women light the Shabbat candles in their homes, ushering in the week’s day of rest. As an Orthodox community, Beth El Jacob places great importance on following these and all mitzvot in accordance with the totality of halakhah. It is this fidelity to law and tradition that Sidney Jacobson appreciates most.
Keeping kosher. The separation of men and women during services. Maintaining the vital presence of the mikvah bath. Refraining from driving a vehicle during Shabbat, even if it means spending the night at the home of a family that lives closer to the synagogue or observing Shabbat at home. These mitzvot have always guided the Modern Orthodox Jews to a deeper relationship with God, and always will.
The Jewish calendar is full of annual holidays, one of the most important being the springtime observation of Passover, Pesach, celebrating God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt. Seder, meaning order or arrangement, occurs on the first night of Pesach. This highly ordered meal can take several hours if properly executed.
Children are integral to the meal. Traditionally, the youngest will ask the “Four Questions.”
- Why is it that on all other nights during the year we eat either leavened bread or matzah, but on this night we eat only matzah?
- Why is it that on all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables, but on this night we eat bitter herbs?
- Why is it that on all other nights we do not dip [our food] even once, but on this night we dip them twice?
- Why is it that on all other nights we dine either sitting upright or reclining, but on this night we all recline?
A children’s song, the Had Gadya, ends the meal: a goat is eaten by a cat, which is bitten by a dog, which is beaten by a stick and so on and so forth, until man is killed by the Angel of Death, who is ultimately defeated by G-d. Through this seemingly perplexing song, G-d’s awesome power is revealed. He alone stands untouched by any force of nature or divinity. He alone is the end of all things. That is why, as Rabbi Bolel put it, our worship must focus entirely on G-d.
A “mock seder” held before Pesach gives adult members at Beth El Jacob a chance to look more deeply into the elements of the seder so as to better teach their children and grandchildren. This gave me the chance to learn more about the meaning behind the Had Gadya. The intersection of Orthodox Jewish tradition and everyday modern life became clearer to me, then. Seder creates an educational opportunity for all. It’s a time when the community of Beth El Jacob gather to experience a mix of spiritual seriousness along with joyous celebration. The first Pesach Seder took place thousands of years ago, but its significance has not diminished for the members of Beth El Jacob today.
Among some of the more notable, older members of Beth El Jacob is David Wolnerman, one of the last Holocaust survivors living in Iowa. He is, in Rabbi Bolel’s words, “the epitome of the staunchly faithful Jew.” Asked how he survived one of Hitler’s concentration camps, David Wolnerman’s frequent refrain is “it was G-d.”
Non-ethnic Jews who have converted to Judaism also find a religious home at Beth El Jacob. One notable character, Chaim, has tattooed arms and hands that immediately signal he is not Jewish by birth, since tattoos are strictly forbidden in Orthodoxy. Displaced after Hurricane Katrina, Chaim found his way to Florida where he decided that he wanted to convert to Judaism. This wasn’t easy: the conversion experience lasts three years—converts have to mean it. In Chaim’s case, his rabbi in Florida supervised his conversion process early on.
When Chaim later moved to Des Moines in order to help his family, it was Beth El Jacob that extended its characteristic hospitality and support, and it was Rabbi Bolel who picked up where Chaim’s rabbi in Florida left off. In the end, the place where his process began is, for Chaim, his true community. But Beth El Jacob welcomed him when he needed a faith home. For now at least, Beth El Jacob is that home.
My very first visit to Beth El Jacob featured a hip-hop and rap artist from the West Coast, Nissim Black. This 29-year-old African American man converted to Orthodox Judaism after a violent childhood and a long search for spiritual belonging. Dressed in the traditional Haredi Orthodox garb of black pants, shoes, and jacket, with a white dress shirt and a black, broad-brimmed hat, the Jewish rapper spoke of his turn to Orthodox Judaism. For Rabbi Bolel, Black’s message is vital, in part because he can help to “break the stereotype of Jews as white.” But the rapper also holds a commitment to educating youth. As he shares on his blog, “The main thing is that a person has a REAL connection to G-D that they can give over and instill in their children.”
Nissim Black’s appearance is just one example of Beth El Jacob’s outreach to young adults. The most important is Rabbi Bolel’s ongoing work with JSOC at central Iowa universities and colleges. Drake graduates like Ethan Siegel and Randy Kane had never been that invested in the Jewish faith until they encountered the community at Beth El Jacob through JSOC. Thereafter, they began to study it and live it.
From serving as a decades-long faith home for survivors of the Holocaust to welcoming the energy of young believers like Chaim and Nissim Black, Beth El Jacob achieves its educational mission in sometimes unexpected ways.
The centrality of learning became especially clear to me one early Saturday morning as I arrived for Shabbat service. Emeritus Rabbi Marshall Berg, who led the shul from 1970 to 1999 and now serves as its Torah leader, greeted me warmly. Ever the rabbinic sage and teacher, Rabbi Berg immediately launched into an impromptu Hebrew lesson about the meaning of my name. “Isaiah” means “salvation of the Lord,” he explained, while “Daniel” means “divine judgment” and “Enoch” means “education.” He didn’t stop there. According to Rabbi Berg, my last name gave me a burden in life—the burden to become more educated. Being in college wasn’t enough, he told me. I must go even further. I must always aspire to become smarter.
Education matters greatly at Beth El Jacob. I’d witnessed that throughout my experience there. It’s no surprise that the shul’s own “Philosophy and Mission Statement” accentuates this value best of all:
Love everybody and work together through the guidance of the Torah to become better human beings……and then teach that to our children.