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Search The Fig Tree's stories of people who make a difference:

Rabbi of diverse synagogue, Temple Beth Shalom,
offers variety, nurtures leaders, urges involvement

By Mary Stamp

While accommodating to the diverse traditions, beliefs and practices of people in the Inland Northwest’s Jewish community, Rabbi Michael Goldstein said Temple Beth Shalom incorporates varied practices, seeks to develop its leaders, encourages community involvement and nurtures its members in times of need.

Rabbi Michael Goldstein
Rabbi Michael Goldstein describes his role as rabbi in Spokane

A gathering point for the Jewish community from southern British Columbia, Northeastern and Southeastern Washington, North Idaho and Western Montana, as well as greater Spokane, Temple Beth Shalom formed in the 1960s, merging the former Reform and Orthodox synagogues.

The new congregation defined itself as “a liberal Conservative congregation affiliated with the Conservative movement.”

Rabbi Michael explained that “liberal” refers to being more diverse in their Jewish identity than in most Conservative congregations. 

It’s a challenge and a benefit to be sensitive to the diversity,” he pointed out.  “What speaks to one may not speak to another.”

While Spokane also has a Reform congregation, Emanu-El, which meets at the Unitarian Universalist Church, some of its members join in services and events at Temple Beth Shalom. 

With these two options in Spokane, there is some choice but not as much as in larger Jewish communities, said Rabbi Michael, who served three congregations in strong Jewish communities in New Jersey for nearly 20 years. 

Where there is a choice of synagogues, people follow their own traditions more closely.

Since coming to Temple Beth Shalom in July 2010, he has found the congregation of nearly 800 people—215 families—includes some who grew up in a traditional environment, some with much knowledge of the faith, and some who participate out of cultural identity. 

Growing up in the Conservative movement in Houston, Rabbi Michael studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City, the primary seminary of that movement. 

When he was seven and eight in the mid-1960s, his family lived two years at Mt. Vernon, Wash., and had to commute 40 miles to attend the closest Jewish synagogue in Bellingham.

“The lesson for me was to be self reliant in pursuing my faith,” he said.  “My parents made sure my brother and I had exposure to our Jewish faith and identity.”

From that experience, he understands people who commute to Temple Beth Shalom.

To accommodate different perspectives and needs, Temple Beth Shalom varies its service times.

Twice a month the Friday evening service is at 7:30 p.m.  It’s late for children, so it’s more traditional and allows people to gather in their homes for Shabbat dinner.

Last year, Rabbi Michael started shorter Friday services twice a month at 6 p.m., designed for families with young children. 

Once a month, this service uses keyboard, guitar or clarinet accompaniment and includes music with an upbeat tempo and contemporary Jewish melodies. 

The education program offers single classes and series on timely topics, faith questions and observances. 

Adult classes at 10 a.m., Sundays, coincide with Sunday school for children.  From 10 to 30 adults and about 35 children participate Sundays.

The Saturday service at 9 a.m. is standard.

Rabbi Michael’s experience since he was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 made him aware of the congregation’s strengths. 

During a stem cell transplant and months in recovery in early 2012—he’s now in remission—he experienced “phenomenal support” from the congregation.

Members led the services, taught the high school program and prepared talks during the weeks he could not be there.  He led lessons when he could. 

Since January, he has resumed all his responsibilities.

“I was pleased the congregation learned they can do more,” Rabbi Michael said.

That awareness has led to two new initiatives:

• Some members in their 30s and 40s are participating in a national leadership development program to prepare them to take on more leadership roles.

• Some members help lead portions of Sabbath services, such as reading a section of the Torah.

Rabbi Michael also reaches out to the community, speaking to Gonzaga students on Jewish belief, participating in a diversity panel for Leadership Spokane, introducing visiting church confirmation groups to Jewish faith and nurturing connections with Christian colleagues.

As “the public face for the Jewish community,” he believes he has a role in educating the wider community.

He wants members to be involved, too.  Some who are interested in social action and outreach participate in community groups.

The synagogue has a food collection to support Second Harvest. 

Two members run computers for the Christmas Bureau that provides gifts to needy families.

“We also involve our teens in the Christmas Bureau,” he said.

He and Catholic Bishop Blase Cupich went to the Christmas Bureau together two years ago. 

“It’s important for people to see the rabbi associating with the bishop,” he said, pleased that the Spokesman-Review published a photo of them.

“In New Jersey, I went to events and was invisible.  In Spokane, my presence was a visible statement,” Rabbi Michael said.

“I do it to express the Jewish value of partnering with God and others to bring the world closer to perfection.  It’s our eternal task,” he said.  “The core of Judaism is the notion that Jews, as all human beings, are to improve the world in endless ways.  To use water and energy responsibly is partnering with God, as important as feeding the hungry, serving homeless people or helping people be healthy.

“For members less involved in the ritual side of the faith, that message has resonance,” he said.  “Such caring expresses our gratitude for the blessings we have.”

Rabbi Michael encourages people to be involved as families, both to help others and to strengthen their families.  For example, the congregation will hold a “Repairing the World Day” on May 19 to allow families to work together in the community.

The annual Kosher Dinner also builds community, drawing people together to prepare it and offer hospitality as they welcome people into “our spiritual home.”

“It pulls us together as a spiritual community,” he said. 

Yom HaShoah, the annual service that commemorates the Holocaust, also draws wide support.  This year, both Rabbi Michael and Rabbi Tamar Malino of Congregation Emanu-El participated in the service. 

Aware of the Neo-Nazi history in North Idaho, Rabbi Michael points out that the Jewish community needs to keep alert, because remnants of hate groups remain.

Although he did not set out to become a rabbi, as he became more knowledgeable of Jewish history and practices in studies of Near East history and archaeology at Brandeis University, he was drawn into more studies of faith.

Along with leading worship and education, and serving in the community, he sees his role as rabbi to be about helping people in times of need and celebration, making hospital calls and visiting people.

By being present with people, he hopes to help them find peace in their lives. 

“If I’m supportive by figuratively or physically holding their hands, I hope I can open people to see new things in Judaism,” Rabbi Michael said.

He also shares his own experience and insights from having wrestled about God and about why things happen.

“I do not have hard and fast answers, but I can share what my processes and experiences have been,” he said.

For information, call 747-3304 or email mgoldstein@spokanetebs.org.



Copyright © May 2013 - The Fig Tree