by Richard Wein
I have spent approximately half of my life as a member of this congregation, Sinai Synagogue.
I could easily talk about the first half of my life, as a member of multiple conservative shuls in Mckeesport, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Chicago, Illinois, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. I related to the opportunity that comes from belonging to a small congregation, where you have the opportunity to learn the service and participate as I did growing up in Mckeesport. I can relate to belonging to a large congregation, where you don't participate, but rather are treated as if you are at a performance like I experienced in Pittsburgh and Chicago. There are advantages to blending in and not being counted on. I could talk about Albuquerque, where mostly everyone was a transplant away from family, where friends became family for simchas and holidays. I could talk about moving back to South Bend, a place where Judy and I were married at the Reform temple, Temple Beth El.
Judy and I did not join Temple, but joined this congregation, and I thought the journey I wanted to share was the journey of coming to this Sinai, and the events that led this Sinai to the place we all call home.
The year was 1986, Judy and I had welcomed our first child and we were interested in joining Sinai Synagogue.
The building was a mess! Plastic wrap covered the windows in the classroom building to keep out some of the cold air. Exposed radiators spewed out heat, but also burned you if you got too close as they did my own daughter, Rachel. Cinder block walls made up the sanctuary walls, with their cracks and institutional look. The fabric of the seats was worn and tattered. The wooden doors, bima furniture, and all woodwork was lacking in stain after years of neglect. The back wall was a faded and torn movable partition that in earlier days had to be opened for the high holiday services, but that time had long since past. The social hall had a wooden floor that was coming apart at the seams. Paint was peeling off the walls. There was no handicapped accessible bathrooms on the main level, but rather down a half flight of stairs. The mechanical and electrical systems of the building were in a constant state of disrepair. It was truly a “home” that had been decaying over time.
How was the leadership of the synagogue?
When I joined Sinai, the Cantor had just quit. The young Rabbi recently hired was the 5th Rabbi of the last 10 years. Soon he also resigned his pulpit. The synagogue was now without a Rabbi!
The lay leadership was not doing its job either. It was not an inviting place to newcomers. You got yelled at in the kitchen...if your child made noise, you were admonished. I remember a member getting up at a brunch to say she was quitting the synagogue because in all the years she was a member, no one ever invited her to their home for a shabbat meal or holiday, even though she had no other family close by.
There were only three other families with young children, Paul and Elli Price, Jeff and Ilene New, and Brian and Cheri Schuster.
So what happened? How did we resurrect this congregation?
My opinion is that sometime around 1990, the younger generation stepped up to become leaders of the congregation, both on the Board of Directors and then as the President and Vice President of the Shul. Changes made during this period were small, but large in their effect on the future of the synagogue. Separate seating in the sanctuary and chapel was abolished. The constitution of the synagogue was changed to allow us to hire “Conservative trained Rabbis," not just "Orthodox Rabbis."
Since that time, Sinai has had only 2 Rabbis, Rabbi Howard Shub who was with us for 8 years, and Rabbi Michael Friedland who has been our leader for the last 20 years. This stability of the pulpit has been very important to the growth that occurred.
At this time, the younger generation knew that we would never thrive unless we made some of the necessary improvements to our physical structure. The problem was that no one at Sinai had ever run a capital campaign and there were few members that were willing to give significant donations to start one. This group of young leaders knew that if done correctly, a capital campaign could succeed. But how to do that?
Those of us involved at this time started by interviewing local fund raisers. We interviewed the fundraisers who worked for Notre Dame. We interviewed fundraisers from the small business bureau. We discussed with other congregations that had capital campaigns and was given the name of Milton Hood out of New York, and his associate Zeva, who we nicknamed Zeva ben Million. Milton Hood outlined a strategic plan that he said would not only raise funds, but that the campaign had the potential to rejuvenate the congregation. Under the leadership of Brian Schuster, Linda Mintz, Judy Wein, and Daniel Langer, a working group of volunteers developed. Once solicited, they became the next group of volunteers. We all did personal solicitations at people's homes. Everyone participated!
The result of the campaign was above everyone's expectations. The synagogue that had never raised any money just raised 1.2 million dollars in pledges. There were many obstacles still to overcome. The pledges were 5 year pledges so the money we needed to pay for the renovation had to be borrowed. We had to move out of the building for 15 months. Services were held at a conference room across the street from the old St. Joseph Hospital. Rosh Hashanah services were held at Morris Park country club, and Yom Kippur services were at the Mishawaka Athletic club. When we got the bids to do the work on the building, the amount of mechanical and electrical and lighting that a building this size needed used a substantial amount of the money raised. The committee had to scale back our plans. We would have to wait to renovate this social hall we are in today!
After Brian Schuster's untimely death, most of the congregation donated an extra year of pledges to finish this room in Brian's memory.
Once the building was completed we set about to improve the Sinai experience. We worked on education issues first. Many of the young families at this time were sending their children to the South Bend Hebrew Day School, and they were not interested in Sunday school. There was still a need for education for the few who were not in the day school. The solution came about by creating the Feast program on Shabbat, and the Tamid programs on Sunday evening for the high school kids. In order to bring the community together for more than just services, the program of Kiddush lunches after Shabbat services was started. These changes and programs have been maintained to this day. About this time, we hired a new young Rabbi and his wife to help attract more young families. A lot of the young families who joined were new to the area, but I am sure we would not have attracted them if the building had not been renovated.
There are still many new and challenging issues ahead.
My hope is that this new younger generation sees this as an opportunity to make their families experience at Sinai one that is meaningful and rewarding. Although the building still is in pretty good shape, there are still some obvious areas that need attention. This congregation is named Sinai, a place of revelation, a place that our forefathers received the Torah, on the anniversary of this day of Shavuot. Everyone stood up to receive the Torah at Mt. Sinai, everyone here needs to stand up and be accountable for our Sinai!