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We sat down with Rabbi Yossi Feintuch and Joel Shenker, president of the board, from the Congregation Beth Shalom:
1. How did Congregation Beth Shalom decide upon Reform Judaism?
Shenker: Our congregation caters to an unusually wide range of Jews. Being in a university town means that people have come here from all over the United States and from many other countries, so our members bring with them a wide range of Jewish backgrounds and experiences. We try to be a place where all Jews can feel welcome. Some of our members are very observant religious Jews; some have had less traditional backgrounds. We felt that the reform movement was the most inclusive of the American Jewish movements, and so we selected affiliation with them.
2. How large is your congregation? What about the holidays?
Shenker: We currently have between 140 and 150 families who are paying members. Our doors are open to Jews who are not members as well. Some people come to all or most of the religious services, some are infrequent attendees but come to social events or educational activities, some take advantage of our religious school for their children, and some merely want to support a Jewish organization in town. On the major holidays, many people attend services. Our weekly Shabbat services are much smaller groups.
3. How has CBS worked with the more student-centric organizations Hillel and Chabad, now and in the past?
Shenker: Our doors always remain open to faculty, students and visitors of any of Columbia’s higher education institutions, and so such individuals join us from time to time. We have had a friendly relationship with Hillel and in the past shared a building and a rabbi. Chabad is a new presence in Columbia, and we have not had joint activities. Our rabbi and theirs have a collegial relationship, and many of our members, myself included, have met the Chabad rabbi, who is quite learned, to discuss the Torah and other matters of Jewish teachings.
4. What is one thing you wish all Columbians would know about our Jewish community here?
Shenker: We love living in Columbia as strongly identified Jews.
5. You became the first full-time rabbi of CBS in 1997. How has the Jewish community in Columbia changed since then, and what’s next?
Rabbi Feintuch: Although the membership has more or less remained numerically the same, we were able to build our own synagogue at 500 Green Meadows, thus giving CBS its own permanent home and a physical face. This factor in itself has increased our sense of unity and intramember familiarity among ourselves. By and large ours is a membership that is dedicated to our continuity and thriving, and I do hope and expect that our many members’ religious involvement in Sabbath and festival services will become more substantial as well.
6. How do you feel about being the only synagogue in Columbia?
Rabbi Feintuch: It is a real responsibility to provide religious and communal services to anyone but the Orthodox; the latter would not find us accommodating their needs. But at CBS folks come from more or less traditional backgrounds, and we need to try and offer the right balance to alienate the fewest and accommodate the most, if not everyone. Still, our competition is tough — assimilation and religious apathy. There are many Jews in town who have found no interest, let alone need, in becoming affiliated with us. Presently, there is another rabbi in town, Avraham La Pine of Chabad (a Hassidic branch of Judaism), who is primarily is focused on working with Jewish students at the University of Missouri. That still leaves me as the only congregational rabbi in town; even as I appreciate the privilege, I am aware of the responsibility.
7. What is your top priority moving forward with CBS?
Rabbi Feintuch: Besides increasing the actual frequency of our members’ participation in religious services mainly on the Sabbath, I dream of having the wherewithal to periodically bring in speakers and artists of a high caliber who would lessen our sense of isolation from the varied Jewish events that the Jewish communities in St. Louis and Kansas City have available.