Ner Tamid 50th Anniversary Shabbat
Continuity Amidst Change
By Marilyn Corets
In my family, when you are in need of a tool, piece of equipment or gadget, you don’t run out to the hardware store or jump online to order it from amazon. You check “The Inventory.” The inventory is my Dad’s collection of bargains and treasures from his travels near and far. Certain items we simply do not buy without first checking with Ellis. The inventory is pretty much concentrated in a garage bay and is well organized. So two years ago, when Dad approached the synagogue’s Board of Directors about this forthcoming 50th anniversary of Ner Tamid’s founding, it was no surprise to me that as a co-founder and first ever Membership VP he still had complete records documenting the five-year history of Congregation Ner Tamid in Bellevue. Every newsletter, announcement, invitation and ticket stub. And he knew exactly where they were stored.
As I browsed the tomes of history – big three-ring binders, 3 1/2″ thick, which he carried to meetings in a sturdy leather satchel because a plastic or cloth bag simply wouldn’t bear the weight – I was amazed at how quickly a band of leaders brought about radical change while maintaining the continuity of gathering for Jewish observances and many secular ones too.
In 1965, members of Seattle’s Herzl Congregation who lived on the Eastside had been meeting for a few years for Friday evening services once a month in Bellevue, thanks to space generously donated by the Willner and Glazer families. This facility and the later addition of Sunday school were important first steps in forging a spiritual path to the Eastside. It was a turbulent time in the mid-sixties in Seattle. Although Herzl was already a mature 60 years old, it had challenges of its own that prevented the growing Eastside population from having a full-service outpost. Traveling to Seattle several times a week was difficult. Fifty years ago, it was a trek. The Lake Washington Floating Bridge between Mercer Island and Seattle was dangerous with its reversible lanes and infamous bulge. The newly opened Evergreen Point Floating Bridge required payment of a 35-cent toll in each direction. Many households had only one car. Carpooling to Seattle was very time consuming without the luxury of expressways.
Gathered around the Beckenstein’s kitchen table on Memorial Day 1965, four members of Herzl Congregation decided to take a giant leap and form a new Conservative synagogue on the Eastside. Murray Beckenstein, Jerry Birch & Julius Skolnick, all of blessed memory, and my father, Ellis Corets, stepped forward and stuck their necks out. They formed the steering committee that in the next weeks held organizational meetings and unanimously took on the name Ner Tamid, eternal light, suggested by Dr. Harold Rosenbaum z”l. It proved to be a brilliant choice.
The Ner Tamid is one of several symbols from the ancient Temple that we incorporate on the bimah. Our tradition teaches us that as we move forward, we incorporate the past. The clothing of the Torah scrolls reminds us of the robes of the high priests. The table where we read the Torah reminds us of the ancient altar. Naturally, the ark reminds us of the ark in the Temple. Both the ark and reading table for Ner Tamid were lovingly built by Bob Polsky z”l and his woodworking friends. And the other symbol, the Ner Tamid that hangs above the ark in every synagogue, represents the menorah; not the 9-branched Hanukkiah, but the 7-branched oil lamp that stood in front of the Temple in Jerusalem. The sages saw the Ner Tamid as a symbol of G-d’s constant presence. A symbol of continuity in changing circumstances. An appropriate name for a group forging a new path. Ner Tamid’s own Ner Tamid was purchased in a Seattle antique shop by John z”l and Ulla Friedmann and donated to the shul.
In this week’s Torah portion, Emor, which means “to Tell” or “to Speak,” God tells Moses to tell the children of Israel to bring oil and set up a light to burn night and day for all generations. How appropriate that on this day when we honor the passion that ignited Ner Tamid, the congregation, we are reminded that the menorah in the Temple and its modern day representation are symbols of continuity throughout the generations. Continuity throughout the generations was exemplified in the Torah service. Rebecca Brown, our youngest Torah chanter, is fourth generation Ner Tamid. Her mother Melissa Finegold Brown was one of the first babies born to Ner Tamid members in 1965. Melissa’s parents, Alvin & Lana Finegold were members as were Lana’s parents, Mack & Revella Lederman of blessed memory. Like the Ner Tamid, continuity throughout the generations.
After the congregation got its name, the co-founders held community meetings and in just three months 65 families signed on as charter members of Congregation Ner Tamid. They didn’t have the modern conveniences of email, FedEx, faxes and computers to spread their message. They placed announcements in the newspaper, mailed mimeographed letters to potential members and held informational meetings. What motivated them to act so quickly? The primary motivator was the calendar. The High Holy Days were approaching and they needed a place to gather. In the first two years before Ner Tamid had a permanent home and a Rabbi, they met everywhere you can imagine – in a theatre, in the banquet hall of a member’s motel, at a country club, in a church, and in meeting space at Puget Power (the tallest building in downtown Bellevue at the time – four stories!). They held religious school at an elementary school and Sisterhood members like Florence Beckelman z”l and Rahla Turck set up a temporary Judaica shop there on Sundays. (Just like the pop-up shops popular today!) The calendar of observances, festivals and holy days brought people together. The places they met were constantly changing, but they consistently gathered and strengthened relationships that still exist today because of Jewish traditions that transcended buildings and locations.
Again, parsha Emor demonstrates the point that togetherness is more important than surroundings. G-d tells Moses to speak to the Israelites about the appointed seasons. Moses is to tell the people about the weekly observance of the Sabbath, and annually observing Passover, Shavuot, the counting of the Omer, Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Atonement and Succoth. These dates are never cancelled and never obsolete. We are to celebrate and observe them wherever we live.
In the beginning, Congregation Ner Tamid didn’t have a synagogue or a Ner Tamid hanging overhead, but they always had a source of continuity in the calendar. The locations changed, but the observances were constant. Attending Friday evening services? This week everyone is invited to the Rogoways’ home after services for oneg Shabbat. Want to learn Hebrew? Come to the Turcks’ home. Have a burning issue to discuss? Go to a Fireside Chat at the Kavesh’s home. Want to socialize? Take your pick of bridge, bowling or golf with fellow congregants. (Mike Bovarnick still plays bridge several times a week. He and Ruth would be here if they didn’t have another simcha to attend. Their grandson is graduating from college today.) Parties, BBQs, auctions, Brotherhood and Sisterhood events filled the calendar making Ner Tamid the social center of these young families’ lives.
In time, Ner Tamid purchased a building in Lake Hills, hired Rabbi Gilbert Kollin and grew to 200 families. But at five years old the congregation had financial problems and was in merger negotiations with Herzl and a very young Congregation Beth Shalom. Yes, a three-way merger was being negotiated, but talks fell apart and Beth Shalom bowed out. (Imagine if our name was Herzl-Ner Tamid-Beth Shalom!) Herzl and Ner Tamid eventually agreed to merge in 1970. Just as Ner Tamid’s breakaway from Seattle in 1965 strengthened the Eastside Jewish community, the Herzl-Ner Tamid merger prompted members to break away to join Beth Shalom and other synagogues and temples and ultimately strengthened the North Seattle Jewish community.
When you have the right mix of continuity and change it strengthens communities. The change that Ner Tamid members bravely and passionately brought to the Eastside was balanced with the continuity of the eternal flame and the Jewish calendar. Continuity keeps us rooted in tradition; change lets us branch out and reach new heights. May the Ner Tamid lamp, ark and reading table from the Bellevue congregation continue to be symbols of continuity and strength in their current home in the chapel here at Herzl-Ner Tamid, a place where minyan attendees often have experienced major change and need to feel comfort and security. And may the newly created lapel pins featuring the original Ner Tamid logo designed by my mother, Roberta z”l, always be sources of light and continuity amid changing circumstances and new chapters. And who knows, one day I may find a Ner Tamid in The Inventory. Shabbat Shalom.
(Ner Tamid lapel pins are available to all while supplies last. Stop in the synagogue office or contact Marilyn Corets.)
Rabbi’s Blessing to the Congregation:
Mi she’berach avoteinu Avraham, Yitzchak v’Yaakov,
Sarah, Rivka, Rachel v’Leah
May God who blessed our ancestors, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,
Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah
bless the founding families of Ner Tamid, all those who were members of Ner Tamid fifty years ago and their families, and all those in our congregation Herzl-Ner Tamid who honor the memories of Ner Tamid today.
Help us to learn the lessons that Ner Tamid brought to our community.
Help us to create a community that is both personal and intimate, and broad and inclusive.
Help us to balance the needs of the unique individuals within us with the greater good of the community as a whole.
Give us the wisdom to know that there is
a time to assert our independence and a time to seek connection.
A time to forge new directions and a time to seek continuity with the past.
As we move forward into the future, help us to honor the memory of the gifts of our history,
While giving new life to our Traditions and new hope to our community. Amen.