Religious Life

Introducing Beth El’s New Institute

Rabbi Alexander Davis

October 3, 2016 / 1 Tishrei 5777

In 1970, at an archeological dig in Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea, a lump of charcoal was discovered in the ark of ancient synagogue. Scientists knew it was a parchment but it was so delicate, it practically disintegrated when they touched it. But these things are not thrown out. So it sat in a university library for almost fifty years. Perhaps there would come a time when it could be read.

That time arrived earlier this year. The scroll was scanned by researchers at the Hebrew University and the University of Kentucky using X-ray based micro-computed tomography, a 3D version of the CT scan hospitals use. One pass of the scan identified each individual layer of the rolled up scroll. The second pass of the scan identified the ink blotches on each layer and the scroll was virtually unwrapped and unrolled, revealing something incredible- the earliest fragment of a Torah text in its standardized form. From sometime between the year 50 and 150 of the Common Era, this scroll contains the first chapter of the book of Leviticus and it matches letter for letter our Torah text.

On May 17, 1970, the same year the Torah scroll was found, this beautiful sanctuary was dedicated. The record of that event was discovered not with CT scans but through the dedication of a small group of volunteers going through boxes to compile a history of Beth El that I have described in previous Shofar articles.

The dedication ceremony involved the choir and blasts of the shofar. But it began with a Torah processional and placing the Torah scrolls in the ark. It continued with the congregation proclaiming, “Let us affirm that this synagogue will be a bet midrash, a house of learning to which Rabbi Aaronson z”l responded, “Here we shall learn who we are and from whence we come. Here we shall seek a glimpse of our destiny. Through knowledge and practice of our tradition we shall transform a congregation of Jews into a Jewish congregation, transmitting our tradition with love to our children.”

Not only since 1970 but for at least 2000 years, our people have been dedicated to learning. Our synagogue founders affirmed that when they built this building. And as many of you know, Beth El’s board reaffirmed it recently with the pledge to establish an Institute for Jewish Learning. For they know what our ancestors knew, “you can’t love Judaism without knowing Judaism.”

The Institute will begin with you- your interests, your questions, your schedule. It will be a place to explore the many facets of your life and our world through the lens of Jewish tradition. The Institute will provide opportunities for relevant and meaningful learning whether you are a member or non-member, Jewish or of another faith background.

Even as I continue serving as your rabbi here at Beth El, I look forward to dedicating a portion of my time to developing this Institute. I will be looking to learn with you and your friends one-on-one or in small study groups, in classes or at bigger lectures. I’ll be looking for opportunities to travel with you, to read and discuss with you, to challenge you, and of course, to bake with you to nourish our minds and delight our palate.
We are only in the beginning stages of planning this Institute. There are still many questions to answer. But the significance is clear. The Institute represents a paradigm shift in how we relate to our shul, even how we define community. It’s no longer simply, “Where do you go? Oh I go to Beth El.” No. Beth El will go to you. It’s no longer, “I only come a few times a year.” No, neither your Judaism nor your relationship to Beth El are measured by how often you come to services. It is no longer, “I’m less connected now after my kids their b’nai mitzvah.” No. The Institute puts forth the claim that life-long Jewish learning is at the heart and the start of Jewish living.

Beth El leadership has committed to the idea of an Institute because we’ve seen and heard a growing interest in learning that meets your needs and desires. We’ve seen some of you already studying at other outreach programs. And while they have much to teach, we want to provide you an opportunity to learn with your rabbi a Torah that is deep and compelling, ancient and modern, intellectual and spiritual. Finally and most importantly, we believe that the Institute is necessary because for Jews to carry out our mandate to be a light unto the nations, we must embody the light of Torah.

To build this Institute, we will need your help. We need to hear your input and your interest and your support. So please contact me with your thoughts, suggestions and questions

Through the Institute, I’ll be looking to unroll the scroll of our people to explore the ideas, beliefs and practices that have animated Jews for millennia and have brought light to our world. And I’ll be looking to gently unroll the scrolls our lives to reveal the wisdom and the words imprinted by God on our hearts. So that two thousand years from now our sefer hayim, our Book of Life will continue to be read and studied, treasured by our descendants because we treasured it.