This year, over 120 HUC-JIR student rabbis are bringing Judaism to small communities across North America and truly ensuring their congregations' survival. The students' presence creates interest and excitement in study and prayer; their enthusiasm generates new programs and classes. Often, they offer the only Jewish spiritual leadership for small and isolated Jewish communities.
At Temple Beth El in Dubuque, Iowa, the 29 member families form a tightly knit community. This synagogue offers the only liberal Jewish community in the surrounding area of 50-60 miles; congregants hail from Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Since the congregation cannot afford to hire a full-time rabbi, it invites student rabbis and occasionally a visiting representative of the UAHC to lead services. Otherwise, a lay person or one of the two members who trained in the para-rabbinic program at HUC-JIR's Cincinnati School may lead services.
Fifth-year rabbinic student Howard Voss-Altman (C '99) did more than lead services during his two years at Temple Beth El. He visited Dubuque on a tri-weekly basis, leading Friday night Shabbat services, Saturday morning religious school for 5-12 year olds (where he was the sole teacher), Saturday afternoon adult Hebrew classes, and a Saturday evening adult study program. In addition, Voss-Altman helped prepare three adult women for their bat mitzvah services.
Voss-Altman admits that the highlight of his weekends in Dubuque were the adult study classes, where he and his students were "learning and struggling with their beliefs" for as many as four hours at a time. Ann Barrash, a member of the congregation, praised the scope of Voss-Altman's programs: "His involvement with the children, relationship with the adults, the adult study discussions that have lasted almost till midnight (this never happened before!) and the Torah study class that leaves us with more questions than there is time-have reminded us how truly satisfying our synagogue life can be."
Voss-Altman's work included outreach to the very observant Catholic community of Dubuque. He spoke to church groups and high school students, but his main interfaith accomplishment occurred when he led a Passover seder attended by 29 Jews and 171 non-Jews. This unification of the Dubuque community generated interest in, and raised the visibility of, the small Jewish community among the non-Jewish residents of Dubuque. Voss-Altman remarked that the congregation had begun to become a recognized part of the religious life of the Dubuque community even before the seder. Proof of this came when Dubuque's religious council changed its name from the Dubuque Area Churches United to the Dubuque Area Congregations United (DACU) to become more inclusive. Ann Barrash, representing Temple Beth El, is currently the President of DACU.
Voss-Altman misses his post as spiritual leader of Temple Beth El, which is now led by HUC-JIR student David Levinsky (C '02). As he looks toward ordination this spring, Voss-Altman credits his experiences in Dubuque as indispensable to his rabbinic education. Moreover, by offering Jewish leadership, education, and spirituality, he has strengthened a small, but vibrant, community and helped ensure its continuity into the 21st century.
I know that Judaism faces many problems today because of intermarriage and the small percentage of the intermarried couples who turn to Judaism. But if this problem is to be surmounted, we certainly have the group of Rabbis that you are sending out of HUC-JIR that can do the job and make Judaism proud. I am judging by the student Rabbis that we have had in Clarksdale [Mississippi]...I feel that even though we have very few members in Clarksdale, a large number of those who are able do make it to services... Hopefully, many of our young people will be won over, become proud of their religion and eventually feel that it is a comfort and too important to be pushed aside...
Stanley Cohen, Member, Congregation Beth Israel