By Aaron Short
A soft rectangle of yellow light illuminated the darkened corner of Eighth Avenue and Garfield Place in Brooklyn, welcoming congregants to the evening’s Shabbat services.
Just past the security desk, a friendly woman with a nametag that read “CBE membership committee” pointed toward the lobby where a gaggle of six dozen people had gathered.
The crowd wore nametags taken from a pile on a wooden table near the entrance, and kibitzed while partaking of cheese, crackers, vegetable sticks and hummus as two cantors plucked acoustic guitars. A number of young couples had brought their preschool-aged children, who scampered about the room before their fathers scooped them up into their arms.
It was new-member weekend at Congregation Beth Elohim, a stalwart reform shul that has served Park Slope’s Jewish community for 155 years.
The congregation’s 108-year-old domed Classical Revival sanctuary opens for Saturday services and seats as many as 1,200 people for special events. But Friday night services are often held across the street in the temple’s 88-year-old Romanesque Revival community center, which contains a gym, a pool, classrooms and a small chapel.
The building looks even older inside with oil paintings of rabbis emeriti affixed to dimly lit gray stone walls and wooden beams across the ceiling.
The shul’s senior rabbi, Rachel Timoner, and the cantors led the crowd to the chapel room.
“Come sit and fill in the circle of chairs in the front of the room,” she said as members handed out prayer books to guests.
The cantors continued strumming throughout the service with few breaks, the melodious sounds they produced echoing throughout the low-ceilinged sanctuary. By the time the service began at 6:40 p.m., the audience had swelled to some 100 people, about a third of whom were new to the synagogue.
Timoner sought to make everyone comfortable throughout the night. She asked the congregation to welcome the peaceful vibes of Shabbat, explained why certain prayers were read on Fridays, gave a brief synopsis of the week’s Torah portion, and instructed them in how to pray during the silent “Amidah.”
“You can read through the whole section, read over one passage or think of a prayer that you have in your heart,” she said.
Timoner is a relative newcomer to the shul herself. She had worked in city government for San Francisco Supervisor Harry Britt, founded two leadership programs for LGBT youth and raised money for a women’s community center before she became ordained as a rabbi in 2009. When beloved rabbi Andy Bachman stepped down in 2015 to join the 92nd Street Y, Timoner moved across the country with her wife after serving a six-year stint as associate rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles.
She hasn’t wasted any time making her mark in Brooklyn’s progressive scene, launching retreats and social-justice study sessions, pushing state leaders on criminal justice reform and working with Park Slope Councilman Brad Lander to make the temple’s sanctuary a home for vulnerable populations following the 2016 election.
But you can’t have organizing campaigns and educational programs without a steady flow of new members.
Near the end of the service, a board of trustees member thanked Rabbi Timoner, the cantors and other rabbis in attendance before talking up a new three-month class on Israel that culminates in a summer trip to the Holy Land.
Rabbi Timoner opened the ark for the only time that evening as the congregation sang “Yigdal,” the final hymn of the night. Everyone then filed back to the lobby to mingle.
“I want everyone to introduce themselves to someone they don’t know,” she said, handing out extra cups of white grape juice to anyone empty-handed during kiddush.
The cantors laid down their guitars, and the lively sounds of kibitzing echoed through the hallways.