By Sharon Rapoport
Since its founding in 1957, Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in La Jolla, has been blessed with committed, caring members. In 2002, the Congregation was in a period of transition and in need of direction. The community was seeking a spiritual leader with fresh ideas and the energy to help Beth El grow. It was a pivotal time in Beth El’s history and through great effort ─and some luck ─Rabbi Philip Graubart was hired as Beth El’s Senior Rabbi.
Now, 14 years later, Beth El is a vibrant congregation whose growing membership defies the national downward trend for religious organizations (Jewish and otherwise). Rabbi Graubart graciously acknowledges that this complete overhaul is the result of a group effort. However, Beth El owes its transformation, in large part, to Rabbi Graubart’s laser-like intelligence, action-oriented personality, and far-reaching vision which have enabled the synagogue to surpass challenges and become more relevant than ever. By offering a wide range of programming, the synagogue attracts congregants and volunteers from a wide variety of age groups and backgrounds. There is something for everyone.
Beth El boasts an educational program for teenagers and its youth program has been awarded Far West USY’s Chapter of Excellence four years in a row. The Tikkun Olam program attracts hundreds of volunteers throughout the year and the Israel Committee hosts outstanding guest speakers. The Viterbi Torah School has more than doubled since Rabbi Graubart first arrived. There is a vibrant Adult Education program, an active Women’s Connection and Men’s Club, and the synagogue holds a meaningful daily morning minyan.
Rabbi Graubart is especially proud of Beth El’s Chai 20s/30s program, which bridges the gap between college and full adulthood, a time in life where many young adults struggle to find their place in the Jewish world. The program attracts young professionals working and living in the greater San Diego community.
Moreover, by figuratively tearing down the walls of the synagogue and enabling programs that take Jewish life to the beach, the park, and the “hood”, Rabbi Graubart has been able to inject energy and create an enthusiastic participation. These programs have been instrumental in attracting new members, who sometimes feel more comfortable at a private home or public area than at the synagogue.
In our talk with Rabbi Graubart, we discussed everything from what-they-don’t-teach-at-Rabbinic-School, to social action and spiritual connection. This is an excerpt from our talk:
L’CHAIM Magazine: What was the scenario fourteen years ago when you arrived at Beth El?
Rabbi Philip Graubart: Even as the congregation was hurting, there was goodwill and potential. There were two tasks at hand: One was to rebuild, to create a stable, structured leadership with a Board of Directors in place. The second was coming up with a vision that was positive, Jewish and joyful; something that could unite the congregation and, hopefully, attract new members. These things needed to happen at once.
L’CHAIM: How did you tackle those challenges?
RPG: We had to make sure we had talented staff in all areas, including education and administration, but we also had to pay attention to the Board structure, and the building itself. Each of these required attention to detail, and for each of them, I had partners. I was not prioritizing any of these areas because all of them were important.
I took the time to talk to people. I listened to their story and the story of the congregation. Together we developed the image of what we wanted our congregation to be.
L’CHAIM: I am very impressed by your skills, not only as a spiritual leader but also as a logistical thinker. How did you acquire your organizational abilities?
RPG: I think it is important for Rabbis to be passionate and inventive in the way we put a vision into practice, so all the logistical elements create an inspiring vision. I learned through readings, biographies from successful CEOs, my experiences, and some trial-and-error. I had mentors in my life who were very smart “organization people.” Also I came here not at the beginning of my career, but actually in the middle. I had previous professional experiences with congregations who experienced similar traumas and found solutions.
L’CHAIM: During your years at Beth El, what spiritual achievements have given you the most pride?
RPG: There have been many! I am very proud of the fact that the synagogue gives people the opportunity to make spiritual connections. The synagogue is a religious institution, a place to find relationships. But these relationships are not the same as friendships because there is a spiritual element to them. The connections you find here have a depth to them, that sense of meaning and connection to God. Ours is not just a list of programs or services, but rather, an opportunity to build these bonds.
I am also very proud of our Tikkun (social action) program. We put it together and made a decision to raise money and hire staff to keep an eye on it. About five years ago, we established a winter homeless shelter, which not only benefits the community but attracts hundreds of volunteers.
The last thing I will mention is that I am proud that, just as I leave, Beth El has decided to eliminate dues and launch a new membership model, Our Shared Commitment. We believe that money should not be an obstacle to synagogue affiliation. This is the right thing at the right time and I am so pleased that Beth El has taken this important step for the future.
Rabbi Graubart will soon become West Coast Vice President of Adult Programming at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. And while the congregation is saddened by his departure, Rabbi Graubart’s vision, spiritual guidance, passionate teaching, and dedicated leadership have ensured that the synagogue will continue to thrive. Congregation Beth El is now excitedly seeking a new Senior Rabbi to join its loving and dynamic community, and contribute in traditional and innovative ways to Jewish life in San Diego.
Beth El honored Rabbi Graubart and thanked him for 14 wonderful years of service with a congregation-wide Havdalah Sunday, June 18, 2016.
A few of Beth El’s Programs:
Beth El Without Walls — This program brings Congregation Beth El to the community with Shabbat at the beach, park, hikes and bike rides, and Shabbat dinners. The goal is to help people live meaningful Jewish lives by bringing Beth El into their homes and communities and creating connections. Part of this program, Shabbat B’Bayit brings members together in one another’s homes. Two dinners take place on the same night: one for adults and one for families with children.
Beth El in the Hood — Since Beth El’s congregation is not from just one neighborhood, this program is about picking one zip code and having services at a public library, a member’s home or any location that is special to that community. “We are bringing the synagogue to you, across demographic lines,” Rabbi Graubart explained. “We are removing those barriers; sometimes a barrier is just getting in the car and driving.”
Youth and Family — Every week these groups hold something special for families. Activities include Beth El Babies, Tot and Pajama Shabbat, VTS for Tots, Teen Events, Viterbi Torah School, and social intergenerational events.
Musical Shabbat – Held on the fourth Friday of every month, Shabbat Shirenu invites participation and draws the community together as a family, with a potluck dairy/pareve dinner usually served afterward. Fifth Fridays includes a band for a lively musical service. All are welcome.