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Signs of hope at Beit Tikvah congregation

Beit Tikvah Congregation is at a crossroads, facing the future with dwindling membership and finances.

But there are signs of recent growth as congregants prepare to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, on Sept. 17, with a new, part-time rabbi and a handful of new families.

"Basically, we are very small," said Diane Wacks, president of Beit Tikvah's board of directors.

The congregation, founded in 1985, has worshiped at First Christian Church of Roland Park since 1987. It is one of only two synagogues in north Baltimore, and the only Reconstructionist synagogue in the city, espousing a more modern and progressive Judaism.

Beit Tikvah also runs Kesher Sunday School, which is based at the Waldorf School of Baltimore and has 40 students, according to the congregation web site, http://www.beittikvah.org.

Beit Tikvah, whose name means house of hope, has seen membership fall from a high of 110 families to 58 now.

Former longtime rabbi Elizabeth Bolton has left and now runs an interfaith counseling service.

"It was her decision to leave," Wacks said. "I believe she realized that we would not be able to continue her contract at the money we were paying her without going broke."

Beit Tikvah has named Bolton rabbi emeritus.

Uncertain fate

The congregation has talked about disbanding.

"We've had discussions about where we will end up in a year. If you had asked me in April, I would have said that's where we would end up," Wacks said.

But recent months have brought new hope. The new rabbi — "our very part-time rabbi," Wacks said — is Becca Gould, 38, of Silver Spring, who also is part-time director of admissions for a Jewish day school in Pikesville.

"It's very exciting. She's a joy to work with and very accomplished," Wacks said.

Since Gould started in April as the interim rabbi, the congregation has added eight families.

"We're growing," Wacks said.

Gould, a native of the Baltimore area, with family in Pikesville, said she has come "full circle," and wants to serve where she is needed in Baltimore.

"For me, it's just an opportunity to be of service, to make a difference and turn things around," she said.

Drawing people in

Gould is helping to grow Beit Tikvah by fostering a spirit of inclusion and tolerance.

"I find that a lot of the process of growing communities is to love people the way they are," she said. "People have complicated and real lives."

She said she wants to help people to be "less stressed and more joyful."

Gould said she is also trying to integrate the Sunday school into the congregation more. Toward that end, she has started Gan Hayeladim, "garden of children," a program to welcome families with young children and to offer activities to connect them with Judaism, "in a way that is family-friendly and fun," she said.

There is a chance Gould could become the permanent rabbi, after a feeling-out period, Wacks said.

"I would love the job," Gould said.

Eyes wide open

Gould said she knew what she was getting into when she talked with the board about the interim job.

"Initially, there was a lot of fear about the future. But when I told them, 'We're going to grow,' (emotions) shifted in the room."

Now, Gould and the congregation approach the High Holy Days with a sense of possibilities and optimism.

"More will be revealed," Gould said.

For information on High Holy Days services at Beit Tikvah Congregation, go to http://www.beittikvah.org.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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