Chords strummed from a folksy guitar underscore the voices of cantors Ira and Laura singing “Hallelujah” from Psalm 150 of the Hebrew Bible for a packed Social Hall at Passover Seder. An English translation printed in the order of service assists those who may not know the meaning of every word. That way, all gathered can praise God through song, dance, and worship.
One of the most important of Jewish holidays, Passover commemorates the escape of the Jewish slaves from their Egyptian slaveholders through God’s liberation. On this Friday evening marking the start of the seven-day holiday, hungry people fill the tables in the expansive Social Hall lined with tall windows, Jewish antiques, and a big stone fireplace, ready to indulge in the Passover meal. Scripture commands the faithful to read the story of Jewish Exodus from Egypt as part of the Seder. After the reading, children dart from table to table, laughing and playing as adults enjoy conversation over sweet glasses of wine. Katie, a new member at the Temple, remarks that Passover is her favorite Jewish holiday because the physical act of eating Passover foods like the Jewish unleavened bread matzah, gives contemporary religious significance to the stories and traditions of Judaism’s past.
“It seems like they’re moving pretty quickly tonight,” I overhear someone remark to his table. In other Jewish denominations, the Seder service may incorporate many steps, ritual objects, and foods lasting until midnight or even later. Here at B’nai Jeshurun and many other Reform temples like it, briefer services feature more music, and the predominant use of English rather than Hebrew reflects the preferences of this modern and progressive congregation. By nine o’clock, festivities are done for the night.
Passover Seder attracts many more attenders than does a typical Shabbat service at Temple B’nai Jeshurun. In contrast with a Social Hall abuzz with lively congregants, a smaller number of faithful gather on a typical Friday at sunset to observe the start of Sabbath. However, the core of a Reform Temple lies neither in the smaller number gathered for regular Shabbat nor in the crowds filling the Social Hall at a Passover Seder. Rather, the words of Rabbi Kaufman of B’nai Jeshurun ring true: the Temple embraces the modern trends seen in the outside world. The Reform Movement proudly serves congregants in ways that are accessible to all. In addition to offering monthly children- and family-oriented services, this faith tradition adapts quickly to changes in culture by embracing LGBT people, for example, as well as women’s ordination and by using gender-neutral language about God. Temple B’nai Jeshurun wants any and all people to feel comfortable walking through their doors.
In this respect, strict enforcement of practices or religious observance is not what’s most important for attenders: it’s the sense of belonging found at B’nai Jeshurun.
At 5:30 p.m. on a Friday night, a vibrant air of familiarity and connection fills the Social Hall as congregants gather for fellowship at tables filled with a variety of cheeses, crackers, and wine. Friends embrace, asking after children and pets or remarking on recent political developments. In a little while, someone looks up at the clock and calls people to the sanctuary for the Shabbat service. Relaxed and still conversing quietly, congregants file down the narrow hallway.
A holiness and reverence pervades the moment as people cross the sanctuary threshold, gazing up at the expansive dome and stained-glass chandelier. The dome appears to reach into the sky where a sun-like painting stretches to its peak. Outside, the actual sun sets, illuminating the stained glass lining the walls of the sanctuary in subtle hues that filter onto the wooden pews.
“The sanctuary is like God is talking to you,” says attender Wendy Beckerman, who also leads educational programs at the Temple. Transformation occurs in this room, shifting the faithful from a focus on ordinary human affairs to one of transcendence and awe. People relax into the comforting atmosphere of this space. For Wendy, the sanctuary is “what keeps drawing people back” to B’nai Jeshurun. For long-time attender Elyse Weiss, being swept up in the reverence and holiness of the sanctuary brings her peace. With a warm smile, she describes how her thoughts wander and she loses track of time.
“The Sanctuary takes on a special quality that has sanctity in and of itself,” explains Jake Jacobs. “It has meaning for everyone, the entire community. There’s a quality of beauty that shapes your focus.” Or, as Rabbi Kaufman puts it, “In the Jewish tradition, we have this idea of Kadeish, which means sanctified. Something that is sanctified is separated from the norm….The goal for the sanctuary is that things will take place in an environment that is not normal.” This space is reserved for divine interaction. The dome transports the mind into the realm of the beyond. The windows shine God’s colorful presence into the hearts of congregants. Communal prayers rise along the arching dome of the sanctuary, echoing upward and embracing the congregation with a sense of awe. In this space, God is distant, surpassing true human understanding; at the same time, intimacy characterizes the relationship, despite this distance.
“I think you can feel it,” Holden Terpstra says of the Temple. “You can feel a presence—a presence of something not even necessarily divine, but of the heart that was put into building it.” For Holden, meaning occurs in the vaulted stained-glass windows and Middle-Eastern architectural motifs. Jewish hands of the past have transformed this space into an abiding monument to Jewish belief.
In a world filled with technology and online connection, the sanctuary remains a haven of divinely personal communication that inspires and calms the soul.
Founded in 1873, Temple B’nai Jeshurun was Des Moines’ first Jewish congregation. Since that time, the Temple has served as a leader for the Jewish people of Des Moines and the larger metro area, hosting interfaith forums and partaking in service work around the metro area. The community’s firm roots are built on Reform Jewish values.
At the same time, B’nai Jeshurun’s history is largely shaped from its close relations with Des Moines’ other Jewish congregations, Tifereth Israel and Beth El Jacob. While they differ in religious practice and theology, they come together in dialogue as Jewish people. The sense of connection across denominational lines runs deep among those who frequently attend one another’s services and events. The camaraderie shared by these Jewish faith organizations traces back to their common identity, one shaped by the largely non-Jewish region in which they find themselves.
Like others, Jake studies Judaism’s extensive history and complexity. He visits all Jewish congregations, finding that each offers its own perspective on Judaism and the ways it should be practiced and lived. For his own practice, he finds great meaning in the purely Orthodox prayers, yet loves the “warm and dedicated” group found at B’nai Jeshurun. The larger Jewish community of Des Moines is under the umbrella of the Jewish Federation, Jake explains. The Federation is the organizational body that attempts to capture the Jewish voices of Des Moines so that their collective identities and histories can be represented and celebrated together.
The Temple’s history goes beyond its establishment as a prominent congregation in Jewish Des Moines, and it continues to shape the lives of the B’nai Jeshurun community today. For Elyse Weiss, it has been a space of Jewish connection in a city without many Jews. The relationships she has formed in this space could not have occurred outside these walls.
The Temple is “home” for Wendy Beckerman, as well—the place she keeps returning to and that nourishes her life. Her Jewish education began at the Temple years ago. It shaped who she is, and now in turn, Wendy shapes the lives of the Jewish children in her classes. Life, faith, and learning are constantly coming full circle for her: students from years ago bring in their own children for a Temple education. These children shape the Temple’s history and may, themselves, return with unique experiences and lives, a cycle of life and learning that enriches all.
The long-standing nature of community is important to those of the Jewish faith, explains Rabbi Kaufman. A connection to ancestors and to a sense of the past guides congregants as they balance the sometimes competing interests of tradition and modernity. “We are going in the direction that our past has led us. Because of the nature of Reform Judaism as an individual-based religion that can go in all kinds of directions, if you have that grounding in history and understanding of it, you’re, in a sense, continuing what the people before you have done.”
The Temple provides the congregation with a sense of belonging and rootedness to a faith tradition that has existed since long before their time. The faithful come and go where life takes them, yet they many find meaning within the walls of B’nai Jeshurun.
The sight of children dashing around the room with chocolate from dessert smudged across their faces is common on first Fridays at Temple B’nai Jeshurun. One Friday each month, the Temple offers a kid-friendly service complete with skits, campfire songs, interactive games, and popcorn. As is typical, Ira and Laura lead services while a guitar and bass accompany them with upbeat Hebraic or Yiddish songs. Congregants talk and laugh together, attempting to wrangle their children. It is Rabbi Kaufman who manages to capture the children’s attention when he holds up a picture book and reads in a variety of animated voices to the mesmerized young ones. In the background, parents and congregants relax at their tables.
Audrey, Jake, Gail, Elyse, and Holden sit together, sharing dessert. Holden, only 17, is studying a complicated Hebrew numeric system. He’s about a year into his conversion process. Audrey and Jake converted at much later phases in their lives—Audrey after her children completed their Jewish education and Jake after the birth of his first daughter. In each case, their Jewish spouses inspired the belief system that has now become so meaningful to them. Gail and Elyse are the only Jews-by-birth at the table, Gail having grown up in an Orthodox home and Elyse having been raised a Conservative Jew.
At one point Jake discusses a Jewish mystical text he has recently studied. Not long after, Elyse adamantly expresses her love for Drake and local sports teams. Mention of the current political cycle arises, prompting many at the table to share their left-leaning ideals while holding true to their candidate of choice. They enjoy each other’s company and learn from each other at the same time, whether that be Holden sharing his latest experiment with food or stories of Elyse’s newly adopted dog.
A myriad of voices and identities comprise the people of B’nai Jeshurun. They represent different stages in their personal and religious lives, yet the Reform tradition and physical space of the Temple bring them together. For Jake and many others, Reform’s roots created this congregation. With fewer theological requirements and a strong ethic of inclusiveness, the doors are opened wide encouraging people from all walks of life to enter and search for meaning within a Jewish context.
For this Reform community, attendance at Friday Shabbat services is not mandatory, nor is partaking in every holiday celebration. People do what is right for them. Some hold Shabbat services in their own homes with other members of the Temple. Others may only attend family services in the Social Hall because they have young children. “You don’t always know why you do it,” says Wendy Beckerman. “You just do it.” In other words, no cookie-cutter figure encapsulates the identity of a congregant of B’nai Jeshurun. All are welcome.
“When I look at my life, I’ve mostly socialized with non-Jewish people,” says Elyse. That’s one reason why the fellowship she finds at Friday night Shabbat services and during the conversations around a table in the Social Hall are so important. “I felt a need to get connected with the Jewish community because there are so few in Des Moines. I go to Temple to keep my Jewish life complete.” For Elyse, the Temple provides a space to be Jewish in a way that isn’t readily available in daily life. Holden comes to the Temple because, “it has shaped my morals, but it’s done more than that. It has made me a more kind-hearted person.” His mind, outlook, and actions continue to change because of the people he finds in this holy, yet relaxed, space.
The Temple is a place of transformation, refuge, and diversity. Differing theological, social, political, and personal beliefs coexist and flourish here. Under the Reform umbrella, Temple B’nai Jeshurun promotes individual choice and agency in living one’s life within a supportive, religious setting. As Wendy put is, “this is just a very friendly, loving community of people…I keep coming for the people themselves.”