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Becoming grandmother inspires connecting with faith

Becoming a grandmother led Louisa Rose to reconnect with the faith aspects of her Jewish heritage.

When her daughter married a Catholic, the couple agreed to rear their children as Jews.  Both felt that bringing them up in both faiths would be too confusing.

For when her daughter’s family would visit, Louisa wanted to be part of a Jewish community.

Louisa Rose

Women prepare for seder meal.

Now Louisa is so connected that she often receives phone calls for “Beth,” because she answers the phone for her congregation, Beth Haverim.

The group’s name comes from “Beth” or “Beit,” meaning house and “Haverim” linked to “chavura” which means fellowship or group of friends.
The Jewish Reform congregation was one of two that started in Spokane about five years ago out of a chavura, an informal meeting of friends in the Jewish community.

The small congregation has been lay-led, because they cannot afford a rabbi, but this year they were able to bring in a student rabbi, Deborah Marcus, who has come every two months from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. 

For Louisa, the small Jewish community in Spokane differs from her experience growing up in Hartford, Conn., in a large Jewish community where her family belonged to a Reform synagogue.  Her father was part-time cantor.

After earning a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree in theatre at Sarah Lawrence College, she moved to New York City.

The interest of her husband, Henry Berman—a specialist in adolescent medicine—in the health maintenance movement led them to move from Manhattan to Spokane in 1981.

“My ideal was to live five minutes from a major metropolis and five minutes from a vegetable farm.  When I was 41, we moved here and I the vegetable garden I wanted.  I am also able to do theatre work,” said Louisa, who has written comedy for local causes and some books on health insurance and health care resources.

Henry, who grew up in a Conservative synagogue, had an overdose of religion and withdrew for many years, but is he now president of Beth Haverim.

Although they had lived in large Jewish communities with synagogues, they were primarily secular Jews who celebrated only Channukah and Passover, two home holidays.
“We were typical secular Jews, as are many in Israel and in major U.S. cities, feeling the strong thread that runs through Judaism of a commitment to tikkun olam, the responsibility of Jews to heal or repair the world.”
That commitment is why many Jewish people have been active in the labor movement and social causes, she commented.
“It’s like there is an ethos in the Jewish archetypal memory bank that we must do something to make the world better,” she said.  “Rather than just lighting candles, we focus on what we do now, here.”
Louisa recognizes different religious sensitivities. 

She keeps brass candelabra that her great-grandmother brought when she emigrated from Odessa in Russia.  Her generation was religiously observant but, after the Holocaust, her great-grandmother completely rejected the idea that there was a God.

“She wondered if there was a God how could God have let the Holocaust happen?” Louisa said.

In that question, she sees the need many people have to redefine God in face of such suffering. 

“When I was about nine years old, I asked my mother if she believed in God.  She did not know how to answer.  She hedged and coughed.  My father said, ‘Of course there is God,’ but he didn’t feel it was a subject that needed discussing.  The consistent message was that you could struggle  with theological problems, but you still had to behave.  Just because you lost your faith did not take you off the hook,” she said.

The chavura offered a place to celebrate and share Shabbat and other holidays for Jews not in the Conservative-affiliated Temple Beth Shalom, Louisa said.  Some came for the group experience.  Many were interfaith couples, not expecting the spouse to convert.  Some were actively practicing and identified more with Reform Judaism.

From that group two congregations formed—Beth Haverim and Ner Tamid, both affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism.

Now Beth Haverim has 40 families in a wide age range, couples and singles.  Some are converts.  The first year, the group, which started with 20 families, focused on writing bylaws, forming a board, building their structure and applying for admission to the Union of Reform Judaism.

Members of the congregation share the responsibilities for leading services, planning educational events and preparing meals.  Sometimes the Sabbath gatherings are for worship and sometimes they are for education.

For example, Elnour Hamoud recently spoke about genocide in Darfur, a situation the Union for Reform Judaism, the national organization of congregations, has begun to work on, in order to raise awareness and to generate letters to the United States and United Nations for action to end the genocide.

“The first step is to be educated,” Louisa said.

“Most Americans live sheltered lives.  We have lost our sense of participation in politics and in the world.  Our country is in a desperate situation spiritually, torn by fear and anger, and lacking a sense that we can do things to make a difference, to make life better. 

“When I graduated from college in 1963, I believed I could make a difference and I could make the world better,” Louisa said.

While Beth Haverim has found values in being led by laity, they have also found limits. 

“Input of a rabbi with training can open eyes and hearts,” Louisa said. “She brings us more knowledge about Judaism.”

“The student pulpit allows a small congregation to have someone to officiate at events—anything but a wedding—funerals, conversations, spiritual counseling, teaching classes.  It provides practical application of what we learn in classes,” said Deborah, whose college studies included speech, religious studies and music.  She worked as youth coordinator for a synagogue, taught a year in Milan, Italy, and worked in retail before entering the five-year rabbinical training program.

With her presence, Beth Haverim started a Saturday morning class for children.  There is an adult education session in the afternoon and a B’nai Mitzvah class on Sunday morning.  People also can come to her for anything from grief counseling to conversations about work on the Holocaust.

Louisa said that “a student rabbi has a certain gravitas in the community, an expertise beyond what I may share in leading a talk on the Torah.  She helps us find ways to talk, pray and study together.  A rabbi is a teacher.”

Louisa has found that by becoming involved with Beth Haverim—starting with the motivation of providing a religious community for her visiting grandchildren—she now has a way to help “provide a welcoming place for other unaffiliated Jews.”

For information, call 232-4367.

Copyright © May 2005 - The Fig Tree