Seven years ago, the East Valley’s oldest Jewish congregation pulled up stakes in Mesa and planted itself seven miles away on a former Nazarene church campus on Dobson Road in Chandler, a stone’s throw from the Mesa border.
Temple Beth Sholom largely made do with what had been a Christian place of worship.
Until this year.
When Rosh Hashana begins next week, the transformation will be evident to those coming for the High Holy Day services of the Conservative tradition Jewish congregation.
“The real jewel in the crown is the sanctuary,” said Rabbi Bryan Bramly. “That is where our congregants have their spiritual home. That is where they come to rest and be part of community on the Sabbath and holidays.” It has new stained-glass windows, striking carpet, reupholstered pews with the Star of David on their sides, plus new lighting, painting, furniture, sound system and bema, or altar, along with a repaved parking lot. The foyer features Jewish art, seating that invites intimate conversation, and a remodeled Judaica shop. Each classroom has been brightly painted in separate themes.
During the sanctuary renovation, the congregation spent six weeks meeting in its social hall, which itself will be the focus of the next burst of renovations.
Bramly, who recently completed his first year as spiritual leader, says changes for the 58-year-old congregation go well beyond physical facilities.
“We have had so many positive changes happening — in the way our services take place, in the social and spiritual opportunities that are taking place here,” he said.
He estimates that membership has grown by 30 percent. Some are former members coming back, and “we have had members of other congregations check us out and decided to be part of our community.”
“There are also people who are spiritual searchers who do not have a Jewish background ... who are seeking some meaning and relevance in their lives and finding it in the age-old tradition of Judaism,” he said.
“They are coming from every possible direction — there is not just one key area,” said Bramly, 43, who was hired in a national search last year to succeed Rabbi Bonnie Koppell, who had led the congregation for 19 years.
In April 2000, the congregation “moved in and became comfortable” with the four-building campus at 3400 N. Dobson Road, said Joel Munter, longtime member and project coordinator. “We recognized we really needed a good cleanup of the grounds, a good cleanup of the buildings and the whole idea of beautification,” he said. Through volunteer work, donated professional and vendor support, and $175,000, the changes came about.
“This is really a frugal effort,” Bramly said.
“These renovations are really symbolic of the spiritual growth” the congregation of nearly 800 is going through, the rabbi said.
Drawing from Ahwatukee Foothills, Casa Grande and all parts of the south East Valley, the congregation is now exploring adding “of the East Valley” to its legal name.
Bramly said the phone calls and e-mails he receives indicated a surge of interest in Judaism. Leaders of churches’ confirmation classes typically call and want him to talk to them about Judaism. He agrees to, but only after they first come to regular Shabbat services.
“I can’t teach Judaism as an historical artifact or museum piece,” the rabbi said. “Judaism is alive, and you need to come to a service.”
Bramly said he is gratified but not surprised by changes he is seeing. “We had so much work together before I came on board,” he said, noting that before he went into rabbi training, he owned a car and truck rental franchise and then worked in the stock market.
“I did a lot of research on the congregation,” he said. “I looked at this like a stock with its profit-earning ratio. If it is trading below its worth, then that is a good buy. … I looked at Temple Beth Sholom. I still see it in the exact same way — an undervalued stock because it has got great potential.” He sees significant spiritual, congregational and physical growth in its future.
“We will always be under construction, God willing,” he said.
“Transforming ourselves” is the working theme of Bramly’s messages for the 10-day Jewish new year (year 5768), which begins with Erev Rosh Hashana, or eve of Rosh Hashana at sunset Wednesday and ends with Yom Kippur on Sept. 22.
“For the high holidays, we will fill the building — no doubt about it,” Munter said. The social hall will handle overflow attendance, he said. “We are really packed, but we are able to react to growth in a way that many congregations aren’t able.” Some temples are forced to rent churches, hotels or public spaces for High Holy
Days services to accommodate unaffiliated Jews who come. “My vision is to empower both the Jewish community to actively engage in our heritage and in our traditions and to ensure that people who are not yet part of our community are welcomed to join us in the spiritual journey we are on,” Bramly said. “We are trying to create a place of inclusiveness.” Everyone who walks in the temple, he said, should know they are welcomed in a house of God.
The rabbi’s long-term goal is to “create a community of lifelong learners” willing to continue to question and revisit ideas. “It never ceases to amaze me how people go on learning and educating and growing and getting more degrees than a thermometer, yet spiritually most of us fire on what we learned as children in Sunday school or religious school.”
Munter, a 14-year member, said he has found Bramly’s strong intellectual inquiry and new energy refreshing. “I think a lot have gone through some of this spiritual questioning and reawakening,” he said.
Questioning and challenging are “a long-standing aspect of our tradition,” Bramly said. “We are taught instantly in our tradition to challenge everything and anything up to and including God.”
Bramly said he is pleased how the “functional space” for prayer in the sanctuary has been transformed “to create a spiritual sense,” rich in symbolism and harmony.
Both Munter and Bramly say they already can’t remember what the sanctuary formerly looked like. “Every person, every volunteer, every tradesman who worked on the project left a spiritual fingerprint behind, and they are in this room now,” the rabbi said.
Not only is “their energy very present,” but Bramly said he is constantly moved as he looks from the bema into the faces of congregants “and the change that they see.”