Congregation Beth El was born in 1909 when the Hebrew Congregation of Bennington was founded to promote friendly relationships among Jewish residents of the town and eventually to erect a synagogue. It was chartered by the State of Vermont in accordance with State Law. The Society became inactive after several years and was re-organized in September 1917, again with the purpose of using pledges and funds derived from memberships to start a fund with which to build the synagogue. All matters pertaining to the congregation were discussed at regular meetings held in a room located in the Noveck Block on Main Street.
July 29, 1923 brought the culmination of a quarter century of concerted effort in the dedication of the new synagogue at the corner of North and Adams Streets. Widely covered by the press, the dedication not only marked the formal opening of a new house of worship but demonstrated the community feeling of the town and state. Though space was limited, those officially attending included all of the pastors of the community churches (except for one who was on his annual vacation). The village president attended as did Lt. Governor Franklin S. Billings, representing the State of Vermont. In an inspiring program of music and worship the various clergy assisted in the dedication of the synagogue. One of the keynote speakers was internationally famous writer and lecturer and director of the Bennington Museum, John Spargo.
Rabbi Isadore Goodman delivered the invocation and the synagogue was formally presented to the congregation by the chairman of the building committee, Max Fienberg. The speaker took the occasion to express appreciation for the assistance, financial and otherwise, that had come from outside the Jewish community. Samuel Margolin, the secretary of the congregation, accepted the building for the congregation, paying tribute to the long continued effort of the Jewish people of Bennington to establish their own house of worship.
Services were Orthodox until the late 1960's, during which time the community enjoyed a full time rabbi. With the untimely death of Rabbi Chaim Gross in 1970, and a changing Jewish population the religious focus of the congregation moved away from orthodox tradition to encompass the broad spectrum of Jewish spiritual and cultural tradition. At the same time the demographics within the town's Jewish community were changing as older members of the congregation retired and younger members went on to college and to seek their fortunes elsewhere. During the late 1970's and 1980's Congregation Beth El fell into disuse and disrepair.
A New Chapter
On Rosh Hashanah 5748/1988 there were no services at the synagogue. Two members of the congregation attempted to gain entry to the building for private prayer and were unable to do so. One of them was Lilo Glick, who had fled Nazi Germany in the 1930's, and who became determined at that moment that this synagogue was not going to die. Then, on Yom Kippur, Pat Barr and Rolf Sternberg went to the synagogue and were appalled by the condition of the building. The determination of these three people sparked the re-activation of the Jewish life of the community. Meetings were called, the membership organized, work loads discussed, more members sought.
Under the leadership of President Pat Barr and the able spiritual leadership of Professor Jerome Eckstein, and with the hard work and dedication of a few people, the little synagogue on North Street blossomed once again. The sanctuary was carefully returned to its original condition, the basement meeting and social room completely renovated, the building's exterior was carefully restored and the synagogue doors were replaced with hand sculpted oak panels created by Gary Sussman. There are now services, children's classes, adult discussions, holiday celebrations and plans for many other activities.
Growth Came Next
Through the mid 1980s until 1994 the community was guided by a series of student rabbis. In 1994, Rabbi Howard A Cohen was hired as the first full-time rabbi since the death of Rabbi Gross in 1970. During Rabbi Cohen’s tenure, the congregation grew from 35 member units to over 100. The 107 Adams Street facility was converted into office and classroom space to accommodate this growth. The congregation affiliated with the Reconstructionist Movement. Weekly Shabbat services were instituted. A vibrant religious education program was established with the help of many volunteer parents. The congregation sponsored and subsidized two teen trips to Israel, and an internship program for Reconstructionist Rabbinical School students was established. The first of five interns was Joshua Boettiger, who would eventually succeed Rabbi Cohen when he retired and became our first rabbi emeritus in 2006.
In 2006 the congregation hired its second full-time rabbi. Under Rabbi Boettiger, Congregation Beth El continued to flourish. In 2007 the congregation embarked on a project to renovate the sanctuary and the Adams Street facility. Shortly after both buildings were rededicated in 2011, Rabbi Boettiger accepted a new position in Oregon. The congregation’s third full-time, Rabbi Jarah Greenfield, was hired.
The Bennington area then experienced a change in demographics resulting in fewer Jewish families with school-age children and declining membership. The Judaism school closed and it was decided to engage a part-time rabbi. Rabbi Cohen was asked to step in as the part-time interim rabbi for one year
After experimenting with a lay-led community for a time, Rabbi Micah Becker-Klein was hired in 2017 to serve the Beth El community on a part-time basis. Rabbi Micah introduced a monthly community dinner, occasional movie nights, and a musical Shabbat service, In 2019 COVID brought all in-person activities to a halt. Rabbi Micah continued to provide rabbinic guidance through Zoom until this became unsustainable. Rabbi Cohen stepped in again as the interim rabbi until a full-time rabbi is once again hired to lead the Beth El community forward.
For more information about the history, philosophy, and practices of Reconstructionist Judaism, click:
Reconstructionist Judaism is based on the ideas and writings of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan, longtime professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Reconstructionism interprets the traditions of Judaism for the modern era, infusing the holidays and symbols with meanings beyond just the historical ones. For Reconstructionists, Judaism is more than Jewish religion; Judaism is the entire cultural legacy of the Jewish people. Religion is central; Jewish spiritual insights and religious teachings give meaning and purpose to our lives. Yet our creativity as expressed through art, music and drama, languages and literature, and our relationship with the land of Israel itself are also integral parts of Jewish culture. Each of these aspects provides a gateway into the Jewish experience that can enrich and inspire us.
While deeply connected to the historical experience of the Jewish people, we find a profound sense of belonging in our contemporary communities as well. This connection often leads to increased ritual observance and experimentation with the ritual rhythms of Jewish life. We find meaning in rediscovering the richness of traditional ritual and creating new observances which respond to our contemporary communal and personal cycles. Reconstructionist communities are characterized by their respect for such core values as democratic process, pluralism, and accessibility. In this way, they create participatory, inclusive, egalitarian communities committed to exploring Jewish life with dedication, warmth and enthusiasm.
As Jacob Staub and Rebecca Alpert write in ExplorIng Judaism, "Thousands of people across the North American continent who had been disillusioned with the Jewish community and alienated from the Jewish tradition are now active and committed Jews because of their involvement with Reconstructionism. Thus, Reconstructionism has enabled Jews to find new ways to express what it means to be a Jew today.