Visitors should expect the unexpected when they attend the Aug. 17 open house at Temple Beth Sholom in Temecula.
Visitors will interact with a Jewish congregation that is one of the oldest, as well as one of the newest, synagogues in southwest Riverside County. It is a congregation that reverberates with change even though its local roots span nearly five decades.
Blending the old and the new – along with the creation of an “infrastructure” of Jewish communal services – are twin goals of the self-described “Conservative Congregation with a Modern Twist.”
Sandy Rosenstein, the congregation’s female student rabbi, is a key part of that modern twist.
“It’s the process of bringing such an old religion into modern times,” said Rosenstein, who recently entered the homestretch of her rabbinical education and training. “It’s a tricky business, but we’re doing it.”
Classes, programs and a self-help group offered by Rosenstein and Jeff Schwimmer, the Temple’s cantor and rabbi, will be a focus of the Aug. 17 open house that unfolds from 1 p.m. until 4. It will be the first such event since the congregation moved to fast-growing Temecula from the senior enclave of Sun City nearly two years ago.
“We’re trying to build something here so that the people who forgot, or never learned, get to enjoy the joy and beauty of their Jewishness and its survival,” said Rosenstein, 58.
The congregation’s move is just one of many stories that will serve as a backdrop to the open house.
The congregation was grappling with an aging, decreasing membership when it decided to move to Temecula. Its leaders sold their synagogue to a congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the new buyers remarked that they could feel the presence of God in the building when it changed hands.
“We said, ‘Of course, you do,’ ” Rosenstein recalled.
After a brief stint in a temporary location in Sun City, Temple Beth Sholom opted to lease space in the building owned by the Temecula Valley Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber constructed the Ynez Court building in 2003, and it leased an unused portion to a string of tenants before it became Temple Beth Sholom. The move to the 1,800-square-foot suite has been a blessing for both sides.
“We get along great (with the chamber) and we have a lot of new members,” Rosenstein said. The cozy synagogue is filled with about 50 chairs and it is anchored by a tall wooden Ark that houses the congregation’s sacred Torah scrolls.
“They have been wonderful tenants,” said Alice Sullivan, chamber president and chief executive. The arrangement has worked well, in part, because most of the synagogue’s demand for parking is on Saturday. That leaves more weekday spaces open for the chamber’s frequent activities and meetings, Sullivan said.
The personal interaction has also been rewarding, she said.
“Sandy is a great joy, and they treat everyone like family,” Sullivan said.
Rosenstein and her husband, Robert, were familiar faces in Temecula’s chamber and business settings prior to the move.
Robert Rosenstein is a longtime Temecula attorney. Working with Sandy’s elder brother, Richard Rosenstein and Donald Hitzeman constructed the landmark Penny Dome Building. That office building, which anchors a parcel north of the city’s Civic Center complex, is named after its shiny copper dome.
The couple has five children in their blended family, and Rosenstein has taken a roundabout route to become a rabbi.
“It is a little bit mysterious,” she said.
Her work life initially took her into the fields of banking, Jewish community services and fitness training. Along the way, she said friends and coworkers and would remark that she possessed the traits needed to become a rabbi.
She pondered their observations and began exploring the possibility. She eventually enrolled in rabbinical school, a five-year path of “endless” school work, homework and outside training.
Rosenstein immediately concluded that she had made the right decision.
“I have an innate instinct,” she said
She has two years to go at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, which is one of three rabbinical schools in the Los Angeles area. She will become an ordained rabbi at the end of her studies and earn a master’s degree in the process.
The seminary trains rabbis, cantors and chaplains to serve congregations and organizations of any Jewish denomination. Her studies have included a bioethics class, and a yearlong chaplaincy course and an internship in clinical pastoral education begin in the fall.
“I’m not fully minted, but I’m close,” Rosenstein said.
When Rosenstein finishes, she will join an elite group of female rabbis. A Wikipedia timeline notes that the first female rabbi was ordained in 1935. The second was Sally Priesand, an American, in 1972. The on-line encyclopedia lists about 60 female rabbis, and each of them has etched one or more key milestones in the faith.
Rosenstein said her unfolding studies mesh nicely with her day-to-day teaching and counseling work.
“I come in and tell them about the cool thing I learned today in class,” she said. “So there’s a huge congregational benefit.”
Another benefit is the array of courses, classes, lunches and other programs that have taken root since the congregation moved to Temecula.
One course taught there is titled Introduction to Judaism, and its purpose is to prepare people for conversion to Judaism and provide continuing education for Jewish people. It is taught by Student Rabbi Joshua Margo-Ginsberg, a colleague of Rosenstein and a member of Temple Beth Sholom.
Its July classes were titled “The World of the Bible” and “A Time to Mourn, Traditions for Death, Grief and Healing.” An October class will focus on “God: Encountering the Holy.” Students will learn about “Marriage, Love & Kosher Sex” in November. A December class will look at “Philosophers, Poets and Mystics: The Jewish Middle Ages.”
A January study is titled “Out of the Darkness: Stories from the Holocaust.” February’s sessions are titled “The Jewish Mission to Heal the World” and “Israel: Dreaming of Deliverance.”
In addition to the classes and counseling sessions, other aspects of Temple Beth Sholom focus on the changing face of Judaism. A large part of the services and the studies are geared toward couples in which one partner is Jewish and the other is Christian or another faith.
“We welcome them,” Rosenstein said. “We embrace them and they can participate fully. The interfaith couples come in here and nobody’s marginalized. That’s huge.”
Many of the congregation’s services, songs and prayers are in English as well as Hebrew. Splashes of humor and humility are tossed in for good measure.
“The cantor and I are funny with each other. We interact in a way that brings a lot of smiles to the congregation, and we sing a lot,” Rosenstein said. “Humility is an important component. I think Jeff (Schwimmer) and I are good at all of it. I don’t know why it works so well. It’s just a good chemistry – a good mix.”