Central Reform Temple had its beginnings in June 2004, when Rabbis Howard Berman and Devon Lerner decided to create a new alternative High Holy Day experience for the Boston community. Recognizing the need for a progressive, inclusive Jewish experience for a variety of constituencies in the city’s central neighborhoods, “Boston Jewish Spirit” was conceived as a special outreach to interfaith and multicultural families, LGBT people, urban dwellers and all spiritual seekers interested in an accessible encounter with the liberal ideals and traditions of Reform Judaism.
Our inaugural worship services were held on Rosh Hashanah, as guests of Arlington Street Church, coincidentally making these the first Jewish Services to be held in Back Bay in Boston’s history. With an enthusiastic response from the 250 people who attended our worship, a new congregation was born.
Surveys collected from participants indicated an interest in ongoing opportunities for worship, study, holiday celebrations and social events. An active core of committed volunteers and leaders emerged, and worked with Rabbi Berman to develop a monthly series of activities over the following year: a Chanukah Celebration; a Sabbath Afternoon “Havdalah” study session on American Jewish history; a special tour of the Museum of Fine Arts, highlighting art of Jewish interest; a wonderful and festive communal Passover Seder; and a special Sabbath Eve Service commemorating the first anniversary of Marriage Equality in Massachusetts, as well as featuring the Naming Ceremony of our first newborn. In addition, we instituted an intensive bi-weekly “Exploring Judaism” course for prospective converts with 12 committed students, and a resource/support group for interfaith couples. On June 20, 2005, the active core of BJS participants met to discuss the future direction of our emerging spiritual community, under Rabbi Berman’s leadership. The group enthusiastically decided to formally incorporate as a congregation, following the historic progressive principles and worship traditions of Classical Reform Judaism. Our congregation now numbers over 150 members.
That month, through the invitation of the Rev. William Blaine-Wallace, BJS inaugurated a new relationship with Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street, an historic progressive Episcopal parish that offered us use of their facilities for our worship and programs. This hospitality has evolved into a close relationship between the two congregations – both sharing the building, and a variety of joint programs. Since 2005, Rabbi Berman has served as Rabbi-in-Residence at Emmanuel, preaching monthly at its Sunday worship. In 2007, BJS and Emmanuel established the new Emmanuel Center , as a unique interfaith partnership for shared programs and for the exploration of the intersection of religion and the arts.
BJS celebrated a major milestone in our history, as we began the New Year 5768. Since our inception in 2004, we had borrowed a Torah Scroll – the parchment scroll containing the manuscript text of the Five Books of Moses – from a neighboring congregation, the Belmont Temple Center, for the High Holy Days. During the rest of the year, we used a miniature replica scroll for regular worship, but this was a printed facsimile, rather than an authentic parchment scroll. In 2006, Rabbi Berman was speaking with his old friend and colleague, Rabbi Edward Cohn of Temple Sinai, the major Reform congregation in New Orleans, and was sharing a report of our inspiring progress. Rabbi Cohn immediately offered to transfer one of their historic 19th century Torahs to us. This Torah Scroll originated in Germany, and dates from about 1850. It was brought to New Orleans around 1900, and had been used by Sinai since then. This Torah had been slightly damaged during Hurricane Katrina, and had just been restored. Rabbi Cohn has indicated that the presentation to us is a thanksgiving offering for the resumption of their Temple’s normal life after a year of upheaval from the storm, and the return of many of their members who had been in “exile”.
As part of this major development, BJS acquired a beautiful new Holy Ark – the shrine that houses the Torah – to replace the handmade one that we have used since our beginning. We remain deeply grateful for the generosity of many of our members who have expressed their joy by contributing the new Ark, Vestments and Silver adornments that traditionally cover the Scroll. We formally dedicated all of these at our worship on Rosh Hashanah Morning, 2006.
Our Ark stands adjoining the Altar in the Emmanuel Church sanctuary. When BJS gathers for worship, it is moved either on to the chancel, creating our “bimah”, or into the Lindsey Chapel, flanked by our menorahs, Sabbath candles and pulpit banner. Each Sunday, it is in full view of Emmanuel’s worshippers - a vivid and dramatic symbol of our shared home, and of the Jewish context of Christian faith and worship.
The Fifth Anniversary of Boston Jewish Spirit was inaugurated during the High Holy Days of 2009, and a number of special programs highlighted that milestone year, including a Service of Thanksgiving widely attended by representatives of the broader religious and civic community of Boston. Our congregation has emerged as the leading Jewish presence in the center of the city, and has represented the Jewish community in many major gatherings and events, including the Annual Interfaith LGBT Pride Service, the Inauguration of Governor Deval Patrick, and the city’s Interfaith Memorial Service for the Tenth Anniversary of September 11.
Other major highlights have included the first building of our public Sukkah in 2009 in front of Emmanuel Church on Newbury Street, for the Biblical harvest festival of Sukkot, which attracts hundreds of visitors each fall. In December 2010, we inaugurated our Chanukah Celebration, A Light Through the Ages, featuring the story of the Festival of Lights in story and music, with the famed singers and instrumentalists of Emmanuel Music. The “Chanukah Cantata” has already become a beloved holiday tradition for many people of all faiths, attracting over 750 people in 2010 and 2011.
In the latest milestone of our history, our congregation shared in a process of visioning and reflection on our mission and goals throughout 2012. After significant deliberation, we decided that our original name, Boston Jewish Spirit, no longer provided an effective way of expressing our congregation’s identity and profile in the broader community. At our Annual Meeting on June 10, 2012, our membership endorsed our new name: Central Reform Temple of Boston A Progressive Jewish Congregation.
We look forward to reaching many new prospective members and friends as we build on the success and vitality our congregation has been blessed to achieve over the past eight years.