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Self-led Jewish congregation ready for High Holidays New rabbi joined group in January
Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg at a rally for Israel. (Jonathan Ginsburg Photo / August 27, 2013) Deerfield, IL, USA
By Donald Liebenson, Special to the Tribune August 28, 2013
With a relatively new rabbi at B'nai Chai and its first-ever steering
committee in more than three decades of existence, the question as the
Jewish High Holidays near is: Will success spoil the congregation?
No, assures JoAnne Kahn, a member of the steering committee. B'nai
Chai, which began with about five couples, remains committed to its
original and more intimate vision of a congregation for unaffiliated
Jews who "wanted to bring Jewish community back into their lives," she
B'nai Chai, which will be holding its Rosh Hashana and
Yom Kippur services at the Caruso Middle School in Deerfield, is not a
temple or synagogue. It does not have its own building. It is a
chavurah, or self-led congregation, that meets monthly at the Rodeway
Inn in Skokie for Friday night reform Shabbat services. There are other
educational, social and cultural events throughout the year.
The congregation's original members were "mature empty nesters who came
from other temples," Kahn said. "Their children were grown and had
received their Jewish education. They didn't feel they needed an
affiliation. They just wanted to meet in a group that was more like an
Originally, members took turns hosting
Sabbath observances in their homes. But as the congregation aged, it
became more difficult for some to accommodate the growing number of
couples, which reached about 25, and so they sought space in local
schools or hotels.
The congregation is currently at just under
50 members, but for the High holidays, attendance can swell to more than
200. (Tickets are available to the public.)
Ginsburg, who joined the congregation in January, has presided over much
bigger houses since he was ordained in 1982 (a Minnesota congregation
of 1,400, among them), but B'nai Chai, he said, is a perfect fit.
"I retired from the full-time pulpit world, and this is very part
time," he said. "And I love the people. Sometimes, within a large
synagogue, some feel the loss of a sense of intimacy. This is a small
group who all know each other."
Ginsburg, 57, is not one for
labels or affiliations. "I went to an Orthodox day school when I was a
kid, and have served in Conservative and Reconstruction synagogues," he
said. "But I also attended Reform camps. So I just say I'm Jewish."
The former national debate champion at Glenbrook North High School has
found another outlet for sharing Jewish teachings. His series of "Jew U"
videos (there are at present 750) have earned him the moniker, "the
"This goes back to 2007," he said. "I (noticed)
the only clergy on YouTube were extremists or ultra-Orthodox. I thought
there should be a more moderate voice. I started doing one or two
videos a day about Torah portions and Jewish holidays, and I have built
classes around those videos."
This will be Ginsburg's first
High Holiday observance with B'nai Chai. Yom Kippur, the most solemn
Jewish holiday, is a time of reflection and introspection, he said,
which he illustrates with the old joke about a man who comes across a
barn with a large bull's-eye drawn on it and 24 arrows at its center. He
knocks on the door to ask the archer how he did it, and the archer
replies, "Easy, I shot the arrows and drew the bull's-eye around them."
A Jewish word for "sin," Ginsburg said, means "missing the mark."
"Human beings love to draw their own bull's-eyes," he said. "(For
Jews), the Torah is the bull's-eye. This is what God wants us to aim
for, and Yom Kippur is a time to say, 'I didn't do that, I regret I
didn't do that, and I want to aim my life in that direction.'"