Reprinted from The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles with permission of the author.
Oct. 20, 2006--At Whittier's Beth Shalom Synagogue, on the second night of Rosh Hashanah, there was a moment that embodied the changes the shul is going through.
When the time came for someone to go to the bimah and hold up the Torah scroll, a frail octogenarian, a woman, started to stand up. Rabbi Haim Beliak gently said, "No, no, no," then asked Abel Gomez to come up instead.
At that service, Gomez was alone, though he's often accompanied by his wife and their newborn infant, a baby boy in a stroller. A man of wide shoulders and physical strength, Gomez held up the scroll effortlessly and afterward accepted handshakes from other congregants.
The woman who was asked to remain in her seat is one of Beth Shalom's many elderly members, those who founded the shul 50 years ago, when there was still a Jewish presence in this part of the San Gabriel Valley. Some of Beth Shalom's venerable congregants use walkers. Some are attached to oxygen tanks. Some, in wheelchairs, are guided into the sanctuary by family members.
On the one hand, walkers and wheelchairs; on the other, baby-strollers. Wheeled conveyances at opposite ends of the human drama. The symbolism was hard to miss: The torch is being passed from generation to generation... but with a twist.
Like Abel Gomez, many of the new, younger members are from Mexican or Central American background and were born Christian. Beth Shalom has become the spiritual home of a growing group of Hispanics who have recently converted, or are in the process of doing so. Counting the children, the shul now has about 30 such congregants. Their presence is the fruit of efforts carried out by Rabbi Beliak, with help from Argentine-born rabbis Aaron Katz and Daniel Mehlman, whose fluency in Spanish has helped make the new members feel more at ease. During High Holiday services, both the veteran members and the newer ones were together in the main sanctuary, and Rabbi Beliak--a man of evident good will--did what he could to connect the two groups: sharing sermon duties with Rabbi Katz, calling up new members to read portions in Spanish, urging congregants to greet one another.
At times during the High Holidays, the Grupo Hispano (as its members call it) had its own gatherings in a smaller, ad hoc sanctuary within Beth Shalom. At these Spanish-language services--led by Rabbi Katz--the congregants talked about the meaning of the Holidays, read prayers and biblical passages in Spanish and sang Hebrew liturgical songs.
It was impossible not to feel the Grupo Hispano's faith and devotion. But a couple of questions came to mind: What had they seen in Judaism that sparked their interest and desire to convert? And why Whittier's Beth Shalom? The place seems so... old-fashioned. Most members are elderly, and the services are traditional (no new-age or ecstatic rituals here). Even the shul's ceiling/roof--an upswept wide-angled V--echoes the space-age futuristic style popular in the '50s. To round out the picture, the first thing one sees when coming into the parking lot is a sign promoting bingo night.
The shul might be frozen in time in some ways, but not in attitude, which is progressive and open. Case in point: Rabbi Beliak's approach to, and the enthusiastic response from, the Spanish-speaking community, which has reached back.
"In Mexican society, I always felt like an outsider," said Alicia Barocio, an artist in her 30s who was born into a Catholic family in Guadalajara. "I didn't feel I belonged. That all changed the moment I stepped into Beth Shalom. The synagogue, Judaism, it all feels so familiar to me. When I'm in Beth Shalom, I feel as if I've come home, as if I've returned to a place that's mine."
Alejandro Gomez (no relation to Abel Gomez), who works in the hospitality industry and is in his 30s, is from Aguas Calientes, Mexico and comes to the services with his wife and three children, all of whom attend a Jewish school, Atid Academy, which is located about 15 miles from Beth Shalom and is not affiliated with it.
"Judaism is the foundation for everything," Gomez said. "By being Jewish, I'm connecting to a very, very long tradition."
Like several others in the Grupo Hispano, Antonio Alvarado realized as an adult that even though his family never talked about having Jewish roots, there were certain clues.
"My mother would light candles on Friday night," Alvarado said. "I'd sing prayers with her. Later I recognized these prayers as typically Jewish. I always knew, even at an early age, that Judaism had the answers I was looking for."
Alvarado, a home loan specialist in his 40s, said that in his hometown of Zacatecas, Mexico, there were no synagogues or Jewish institutions, so he attended a Christian theological seminary. Oddly, it was there that his "internal Judaism grew and flourished." Years later, in Los Angeles, he studied Judaism with a Spanish-speaking group.
"That's where I learned about the Shema, mitzvot, kashrut, Shabbat, some Hebrew, the liturgy, songs," he said.
Eventually, he connected with Beth Shalom.
"Rabbi Beliak knows that if the congregation is to survive, it will have to change," Alvarado said. "He understands that Judaism needs a wide range of colors. Of course, it's that way in Israel, but it needs to be that way here, too."
Alberto Herrera, a 40-something administrator for a national organization that assesses building safety, attended the High Holiday services with his wife, Liz, and their 7-year-old son, Isaac.
"I started coming to Beth Shalom to attend classes with Rabbi Katz," Herrera said. "When I first showed up, he said, 'Welcome to the club.' That felt good. Once I started to learn, I had no doubt in my heart that I wanted to practice Judaism. No doubt at all. I realized that I wanted to be a Jew, so I started the process of conversion. If I'm going to pass something on to Isaac, I want it to be my Judaism."
"What do I get from Beth Shalom?" he continued "Three things. First, intellectual. I feel that when the rabbis talk, it's at a high level of thought. Two, I feel the spiritual part of it, the deep connection to God and to spirit. And three, I feel a sense of community with the people of the congregation, both those who have been there for years and the new members."
I understood. Beth Shalom may be old-fashioned in some ways, but that's part of what makes it attractive to those who are new to Judaism and come from a culture of faith.
At one Spanish-language service in the ad hoc sanctuary, Alvarado played guitar and sang Hebrew melodies, while Herrera accompanied him on piano. Both are talented musicians. After one exquisitely beautiful Hebrew song, I struggled to hold back tears and there was a deep silence in the room: Everyone needed a few seconds to absorb it.
Suddenly there was a loud whisper: "Awesome!" The Spanish-speaking congregants turned. At the doorway was Steve Baptista, who is neither an elderly Ashkenazi nor a Spanish-speaking member of the Grupo Hispano. He's American-born, a tall, robust, recently retired police officer who took Rabbi Beliak's Introduction to Judaism class several years ago, converted to Judaism and has since served as Beth Shalom's president.
"Awesome," Baptista repeated. "Just... awesome."
Everyone felt it: Awesome. An appropriate word for the Days of Awe.