Temple Beth Israel’s building was erected in 1950 on the same site of its original home. The synagogue was founded nearly a century ago. When Tracy Nathan became the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham on Aug. 1, she was only seven years removed from her ordination and faced the challenge of leading a congregation with century old roots.
Not a native New Englander, the young, former San Francisco-based rabbi wondered if she would be welcomed warmly in these colder climes. So she decided to find out. In members’ living rooms.
“I wanted to get a sense of the community, what’s special about it, who the people are and what they think,” said Nathan, “so I started a series called Living Room Conversations. We would gather in groups in people’s homes and talk about how people came to Beth Israel and what it means to them. People really opened up.”
Originally established as an Orthodox shul, Temple Beth Israel later affiliated with the Conservative movement and now considers itself an independent congregation. And while observance is closely aligned with the Conservative movement, the congregation is progressive to the extent that Rabbi Nathan is Beth Israel’s second female rabbi.
Merrill Griff, whose grandparents were among the founders, is president of the synagogue. “Some years ago, the congregation made a decision that we wanted to sit together,” Griff said. “From that time, we’ve been very egalitarian. We’re small enough that if you’re capable of chanting Torah or leading a service, you can do it, whether you’re a man or a woman.”
Beth Israel’s services are primarily in Hebrew, but it is introducing more modern melodies. Nathan said among her goals is to gently question the temple’s religious traditions to see where evolutions and innovations might be possible.
‘This is a place with a lot of customs, which think is wonderful. … “I respect customs, but sometimes they exist only because no one thought to question them. So I try to ask, does this help us achieve the spirit of Shabbat? If we want to reach out to new people, where do we have to bend? And people have been very respectful and appreciative.”
If Temple Beth Israel has wellestablished traditions, they come by them honestly, having been born shortly after the arrival of the first Jews to Waltham in the late 1800s.
“The Jews who came to Waltham were cobblers, tailors, junk dealers, tradespeople,” said Griff. “They eventually opened small shops on Main Street and Moody Street, including my grandparents, whose furniture store is still in business here and celebrating 100 years.”
At that time, Griff said, Waltham was the “mother community” from which Jews eventually settled in nearby towns like Lincoln, Concord, Sudbury, Weston and Wayland.
“A group of these early settlers started meeting in each others’ homes for services,” he said. “When they got too numerous, they bought a house in our present location and converted it to an Orthodox shul.”
The current building was constructed on the same site in the late 1940s and was completed in 1950. Membership is now at about 120 households. Over the years, the congregation has aged, and today does not have a Hebrew school. In fact, many in the nearby Brandeis community do not even know that Temple Beth Israel exists.
That doesn’t sit well with Rabbi Nathan, who has taught at the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Boston; at Genesis, Brandeis University’s summer program for high school students; and at Tufts University.
Her husband, Rabbi Scott Slarskey, teaches at Solomon Schechter, and they have a 5-yearold son. For them, reaching out to college students and younger families is a priority.
“I’m hoping to build a more multigenerational feel to the temple,” said Nathan, “so it would be great to let people know we’re here. At the same time, I think it’s important to engage with the wider community in general to find out what the needs are and get ideas about what we can do differently.”
A weekend of Chanukah events, Dec. 4-5, is one way the temple is reaching out to the larger community, featuring one of its best known members, Hankus Netsky, director of the Klezmer Conservatory Band.
Netsky highlights Chanukah weekend
Hankus Netsky, founder and director of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, will be joined by vocalist Lisa Jacobs and six musicians in a program of Yiddish and Hebrew song and nigunim at Temple Beth Israel in Waltham Dec. 4, 8-10 p.m.
The temple will host a Children’s Chanukah Party, with latkes, music, games, storytelling and dancing, on Dec. 5, 3-5 p.m.
For details on the weekend’s events, visit tbiwaltham.org or call the temple at 781-894-5146.