The End of the Weissberg Era

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Following the synagogue’s move to 3610 Dundee Road in 1989, Rabbi and Tamar Weissberg began seriously reflecting on their roles within the temple at large. As a rabbi with lifetime tenure, Weissberg had the opportunity to retain his pulpit indefinitely, and Tamar’s years of service as an educator and school director established her as a knowledgeable and capable leader in the religious school. Yet both began to question the long-term effect of retaining their congregational positions due to Northbrook’s demographics, which were strongly tilted toward a younger membership. They were beloved senior members of the temple family, but felt that perhaps a change in regime would allow them to pursue new accomplishments.

Rabbi Weissberg was concerned that cultivating a youthful atmosphere with an older public face would seem incongruous to potential members. And with membership down from previous years, the need to find a new leader who could attract younger members while maintaining an aging congregation became apparent. The congregation needed someone to draw in singles, young couples with or without children, and, most of all, families with children of varied ages.

In 1995, with his 70th birthday just a few years away, Rabbi Weissberg made the difficult decision to step down from his position as spiritual leader, putting the welfare of his beloved Beth-El ahead of his own personal interests. This did not mean that Weissberg would leave the congregation. Instead, his service to the synagogue evolved to that of rabbi emeritus, a position defined and designed by him and the temple board.

As Rabbi Weissberg began the delicate transition from one rabbinic role to another, the congregation’s rabbinic search committee began their pursuit for a new leader. This task was complicated by the fact that the congregation was no longer a member of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) due to an unresolved dues issue. Therefore, instead of using the UAHC’s placement services, Beth-El sought to find a rabbi on its own, sending hundreds letters to rabbis across the United States. (And, as the congregation began its search, Rabbi Weiner-Kaplow announced his plans to depart Beth-El to found a new Reconstructionist synagogue of his own.)

In spring 1995, after interviewing a number of candidates, Beth-El’s rabbinic search committee saw great promise in a young man who was serving as an associate rabbi and director of education in Providence, Rhode Island. Coincidentally, this synagogue was also named Beth-El, and committee members learned that Rabbi Sidney Helbraun traced his roots back to some of the same Chicago neighborhoods that were home to Beth-El’s current and former members. Like Rabbi Weissberg, Helbraun’s path to the rabbinate was a fascinating story, full of twists, turns and moments of self-discovery on two continents.

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Sidney Helbraun was born in 1961 and grew up in Chicago’s northern suburbs, in a tight-knit Reform family. He attended Maine East High School and was actively involved at Temple Judea Mitzpah in Skokie. His family regularly attended services led by Rabbi Karl Weiner, piquing his interest in Judaism at a young age. As a teenager, he often attended scholar-in-residence programs at the temple, where he felt that whatever he learned about Judaism always made sense to him on a deeper level.

During his high school years, Helbraun found a place and purpose within Reform Judaism, completing post-confirmation classes and taking on a leadership role in his temple’s religious school and youth group. Following high school, Helbraun enrolled in Northern Illinois University as a political science major. After two years at NIU, Helbraun spent his junior year abroad, studying in the Reform Movement’s College Academic Year (CAY) program. He lived and worked on Kibbutz Tzora, attended classes at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Jerusalem, and participated in Hebrew ulpan sessions on the kibbutz. When the program concluded, Helbraun enrolled at the University of Florida where he completed his undergraduate degree.

Helbraun’s year in Israel had a lasting effect on him. His appreciation of Judaism and love for Israel and the Jewish people had grown stronger, and he developed a greater level of comfort with Hebrew. His decision to become a rabbi came quite naturally, and he was accepted into the rabbinic program at HUC-JIR, attending both the Jerusalem and Cincinnati campuses.

After his year in the CAY program, Helbraun returned to Israel two years later, along with the rest of his incoming rabbinic school class. Then, after two years studying in Cincinnati, Helbraun decided to take a year off from his schooling at the HUC-JIR to study at Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies, an egalitarian yeshiva in Jerusalem. During this year, one of Helbraun’s teachers suggested that, if he desired, he could be ordained as an Orthodox rabbi within a two-year time frame—the same amount of time required to be ordained by HUC-JIR.

This was an important moment for Helbraun. It gave him a sense of authenticity, enabling him to feel that his decision to become a Reform rabbi was not because it was an easier path, but rather because it reflected who he was. Helbraun believed that a Reform Jew was obligated to know and understand the teachings of Judaism no differently than a Conservative or Orthodox Jew, but that he was granted autonomy about how to apply these values in his life. He believed in the principal of informed choice, that a religious Jewish life should be based on decisions of conscience, not convenience—ideals that lie at the heart of Reform Judaism.

At the conclusion of that year, Helbraun returned to the Cincinnati campus of HUC-JIR. He completed his studies, and was ordained in June 1990. After serving Temple Beth-El in Providence for five years, Helbraun, his wife, Debbie, also a rabbi, and their 18-month-old daughter, Rebeccca, came to Northbrook. Two years later, with the birth of their son, Jonah, their family was complete.

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