Still Growing, Still Improving
During the first nine years of his tenure, Rabbi Helbraun saw Temple Beth-El go through an impressive period of growth. The congregation was comprised of over 730 member families. The religious school had an enrollment of 650 students, and the temple’s professional staff had grown as well. While the growth process had moved at a more measured pace than it had when the congregation had moved to Touhy Avenue, the phrase “build it and they will come” certainly applied to the state of affairs in Northbrook.
Thus, at the end of April 2004, a letter was written by President Rosely Kaiser, Chairman of the Board Richard Schoenstadt, and Rabbi Helbraun informing the congregation that, for the third time in 17 years, Beth-El would be asking its members to support a Capital Campaign. A feasibility study was conducted and a $1.5 million goal was established. Co-chaired by Jon Hattenbach and Bruce Werner, the funds gained by the campaign would be used to convert the undeveloped space in the lower level into a social hall and permanent classrooms, convert Fink Hall into a small chapel, and develop an outdoor garden area, with any remaining funds to be used to pay down outstanding debt from previous building projects.
Once again, the campaign proved to be an extraordinary success, raising $1.8 million to creat classrooms for the religious school; the Werner Family Social Hall for events and celebrations; the Dr. Arthur W. Glickson Chapel (also known as the Mishkan), which sits in the Fink Spiritual Center; and the Steinberg Family Garden. Many of these spaces (the Mishkan and garden, in particular) are noteworthy not only for their functionality, but also for the beauty they bring to the congregation.
Shortly after this last construction project was completed, Rabbi Persin left Beth-El to lead a congregation in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. Upon her departure, the board established a new rabbinic search committee to work with Rabbi Helbraun to identify candidates for the position. The committee’s work was made much easier by the fact that the previous year, Beth-El had successfully concluded discussions with the URJ (formerly the UAHC), enabling the congregation to re-affiliate with the Reform movement’s congregational arm, and providing it with access to its rabbinic placement services. The search committee sent a delegation to New York, where they met with 22 candidates in a 48-hour period. Using the College Institute’s matching process for new rabbinical ordinates, the committee found its match in Rabbi Jeffrey Weill.
Although not a “born-and-bred” Midwesterner, Rabbi Weill brought many East Coast sensibilities that meshed well with Rabbi Helbraun’s philosophy. He was raised in Westfield, NJ, a suburb of New York City. Rabbi Weill met his wife, Julie Chizewer Weill, at a lecture at Chicago’s Anshe Emet synagogue in 1997 when he was working in Chicago. Julie has worked in the Jewish social justice field since 1992, and currently is employed by the URJ’s Just Congregations project. The Weills have three children: Betsy, Ruthie, and Samuel.
Rabbi Weill began rabbinical school as a second-career student at the age of 37. He previously graduated from American University’s law school and worked in New York, Chicago, and Washington, DC for Jewish organizations, primarily the American Jewish Committee. His first steps toward the pulpit were taken four days after the birth of his first child, when he told his wife that he wanted to attend rabbinical school.
Rabbi Weill attended HUC-JIR from 2002 to 2007, and studied in New York, Cincinnati, and Jerusalem. Over the years, his main rabbinic influence was Rabbi Charles Kroloff, now rabbi emeritus of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield. Rabbi Kroloff was past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and of ARZA, the American Reform Zionist Association.
Rabbi Weill recalled that, when he arrived at Temple Beth-El in July 2007, the temple appealed to him for two main reasons. First, from a practical perspective, his wife’s parents live in the Chicago area. Second, he liked that Beth-El described itself as a Reform congregation that is “comfortable with tradition.” Rabbi Weill’s influence can be seen in many places in the congregation, as he has worked diligently on several projects that have great meaning to him.
Shabbat Yeladim, an updated version of the congregation’s Tot Shabbat program, began in 2007 with two to five families in attendance. It evolved into a monthly Erev Shabbat program with a dozen or more families attending regularly. Each Shabbat Yeladim features a complimentary dinner, an age-appropriate service that includes an original story, and an arts-and-crafts project.
Rabbi Weill helped revive the congregation’s Caring Committee, which is also known as B’Yachad. Guided by lay leaders, first Mary Jacobs and then Julie Newman, B’Yachad has played an active role in making the members of the congregation feel more like part of a family by reaching out to support its members during difficult times.
Another area that benefited from Rabbi Weill’s attention was the Casual Shabbat Morning Minyan. Previously this group met monthly, but the rabbi worked with lay leaders to create a minyan that now meets every week. When he is in attendance, the service includes a Torah reading as well as a lively Torah study session after the service. He also added a contemporary element to the High Holiday children’s services with his popular original “Groovy Shuvi” stories.
Rabbi Weill also has a strong interest in Jewish education. Working with Alissa Zuchman, he helped launch the Teen B’Limud Experience (TBE), an integrated high school program, combining classroom learning with informal group conversations over lunch. This program meshes well with the rabbi’s great strength: building relationships and helping Beth-El’s students develop positive associations with Judaism and temple life.
Rabbi Weill also added a contemporary element to the High Holiday children’s services with his popular, original “Groovy Shuvi” stories. He remains steadfast in assisting Rabbi Helbraun with life-cycle events and pastoral care. He leads services and shares his passion for teaching with young and old alike. His love for the congregation is clearly evident, confirming that the search committee’s visit to New York years before was b’sheret.
It is hard to conclude the story of a living institution, since historical moments continue to occur each day. However, it seems certain that the story of Temple Beth-El will continue for generations to come, and that others, who will have the opportunity to review the records of these present days from a perspective of time, will fill in the blanks of stories that might have been omitted and add decades of remembrances to the record that has been written here.