Self-led Jewish congregation ready for High Holidays
New rabbi joined group in January

Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg at a rally for Israel. (Jonathan Ginsburg Photo / August 27, 2013)
Deerfield, IL, USA

By Donald Liebenson, Special to the Tribune
August 28, 2013

With a relatively new rabbi at B'nai Chai and its first-ever steering committee in more than three decades of existence, the question as the Jewish High Holidays near is: Will success spoil the congregation?

No, assures JoAnne Kahn, a member of the steering committee. B'nai Chai, which began with about five couples, remains committed to its original and more intimate vision of a congregation for unaffiliated Jews who "wanted to bring Jewish community back into their lives," she said.

B'nai Chai, which will be holding its Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services at the Caruso Middle School in Deerfield, is not a temple or synagogue. It does not have its own building. It is a chavurah, or self-led congregation, that meets monthly at the Rodeway Inn in Skokie for Friday night reform Shabbat services. There are other educational, social and cultural events throughout the year.

The congregation's original members were "mature empty nesters who came from other temples," Kahn said. "Their children were grown and had received their Jewish education. They didn't feel they needed an affiliation. They just wanted to meet in a group that was more like an extended family."

Originally, members took turns hosting Sabbath observances in their homes. But as the congregation aged, it became more difficult for some to accommodate the growing number of couples, which reached about 25, and so they sought space in local schools or hotels.

The congregation is currently at just under 50 members, but for the High holidays, attendance can swell to more than 200. (Tickets are available to the public.)

Rabbi Jonathan Ginsburg, who joined the congregation in January, has presided over much bigger houses since he was ordained in 1982 (a Minnesota congregation of 1,400, among them), but B'nai Chai, he said, is a perfect fit.

"I retired from the full-time pulpit world, and this is very part time," he said. "And I love the people. Sometimes, within a large synagogue, some feel the loss of a sense of intimacy. This is a small group who all know each other."

Ginsburg, 57, is not one for labels or affiliations. "I went to an Orthodox day school when I was a kid, and have served in Conservative and Reconstruction synagogues," he said. "But I also attended Reform camps. So I just say I'm Jewish."

The former national debate champion at Glenbrook North High School has found another outlet for sharing Jewish teachings. His series of "Jew U" videos (there are at present 750) have earned him the moniker, "the YouTube Rabbi."

"This goes back to 2007," he said. "I (noticed) the only clergy on YouTube were extremists or ultra-Orthodox. I thought there should be a more moderate voice. I started doing one or two videos a day about Torah portions and Jewish holidays, and I have built classes around those videos."

This will be Ginsburg's first High Holiday observance with B'nai Chai. Yom Kippur, the most solemn Jewish holiday, is a time of reflection and introspection, he said, which he illustrates with the old joke about a man who comes across a barn with a large bull's-eye drawn on it and 24 arrows at its center. He knocks on the door to ask the archer how he did it, and the archer replies, "Easy, I shot the arrows and drew the bull's-eye around them."

A Jewish word for "sin," Ginsburg said, means "missing the mark."

"Human beings love to draw their own bull's-eyes," he said. "(For Jews), the Torah is the bull's-eye. This is what God wants us to aim for, and Yom Kippur is a time to say, 'I didn't do that, I regret I didn't do that, and I want to aim my life in that direction.'"