With its frayed cover and sticky note tabs sticking out from a number of pages, Gary Takakin’s copy of The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community by Dr. Ron Wolfson is testimony to the number of times the book has been read.
“Ron Wolfson is my guru, and while I have all of his books, I come back to this one—a lot, as you can tell by the dog-eared copy,” says Tabakin, a vice-president of Temple Emanuel in Virginia Beach. “He is a big believer in the community—not just the Conservative branch, but Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist—and his message is that we’re all Jews and we need to work together.”
The community can learn from Wolfson in person when he appears at four public community events February 7-9. (See What’s Happening on page 19 for the schedule.) A professor, author, and popular Jewish lecturer, Wolfson will discuss and explore topics such as creating authentically welcoming community centers and houses of worship and the steps a sacred community can do together to further tikkun olam (creation and repair of the world).
The idea to invite Wolfson to Tidewater came to Tabakin when he was tasked with determining how Temple Emanuel could use grant funding available through the revitalized Synagogue-Federation Partnership of the Tidewater Jewish Community.
“I found out about the grant around the same time we were planning our annual Rabbi Pincus Forum,” Tabakin says. “All of the sudden a light bulb went off, and I thought, ‘Why don’t we bring someone in who is greatly admired by many people, who could be a scholar-in-residence here and who could also speak to the community?’ I checked with our education director, Beth Gross, to see who our partner, the ISJL (Institute of Southern Jewish Life) had on the speakers bureau roster this year.”
Beth Gross attended an ISJL conference during the summer where Wolfson spoke and told Tabakin she thought he would be a great fit.
“Everyone was glued on him. There was no side-talking going on. He kept you interested in what he had to say,” Gross says. “Ron Wolfson is a Jewish educator who is very knowledgeable…he really can make your life better after he talks, because you take away things you did not know before you came to hear him speak, and put them into practice.”
With Gross’ solid endorsement of Wolfson as someone who could positively impact the community, Tabakin contacted the ISJL to book an appearance. When he shared the news with leaders at Congregation Beth El in Norfolk (where Tabakin is also a member), and Harry Graber, executive vice-president of the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater, they asked to be included in the plans. They, along with Ohef Sholom Temple, which is hosting a private workshop with Wolfson for temple boards, added financial and logistical support, and more events, to ensure as many people as possible could have the opportunity to hear Wolfson.
“We’re fortunate to be able to assist in bringing Ron to the area, along with Temple Emanuel, Congregation Beth El and Ohef Sholom Temple,” says Graber. “Temple Emanuel took the lead in booking him, through their Synagogue-Federation grant and this terrific speaker is an example of the kinds of things we hoped would happen when we provided the grants, along with the Tidewater Jewish Foundation and the Simon Family Foundation. The grants have created an atmosphere of collaboration that contribute to making sure our Jewish community, its agencies, and its houses of worship can thrive and grow.”
“I hail from the Jewish community of Omaha, Nebraska, where 5,000 Jews live, so I understand the challenges and opportunities of a community your size,” says Wolfson. “As we will learn, the single greatest task facing us is the engagement of our people with the Jewish experience in ways that provide them meaning and purpose, belonging and blessing. This depends on our ability to build relationships with each and every individual. How to do that is the topic of our time together!”
Ann Zivitz Kimball, marketing director at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, says Wolfson’s messages are educational, highly enriching and, to her and others, brilliantly inspirational.
“In my opinion, what makes him so brilliant is his ability to touch everyone and leave them with a renewed awareness of what it means to be made in the image of God, as well as what we can do to honor that in everyday life at home, in our synagogues and in our communities, keeping that awareness in mind,” Kimball says. “He is joyful with everyone and I dare you not to break into a smile just listening! You won’t hear heavy handed preaching. You won’t hear one definition of God. Christians, Jews, and even those without a particular faith learn from him. You will simply feel renewed and refreshed and so glad to have been there and thirsty for more!”
Tabakin says he is grateful for the directive of the grant that not only should it benefit Temple Emanuel members, but that greater Jewish community would benefit from the program as well.
“If this has not become a community project, than what is?” Tabakin asks. “The grant is just a win-win for everyone in the community and is a way of demonstrating that the Federation and the synagogues don’t have to be in competition. The grant has enabled Temple Emanuel and its members to lead by example, and show that we are invested in becoming involved in all components of the community.”
by Laine Mednick Rutherford