Shir Hadash to have a new home and a new associate rabbi for 5774

When it comes to local synagogue news, Congregation Shir Hadash, the Milwaukee-area’s only Reconstructionist congregation, may have the market cornered for 5774.

In July, the congregation welcomed a new associate rabbi, Tiferet Gordon. In October, the congregation will move to its new home on Milwaukee’s East Side, Plymouth Church.

“Right now, we joke about wandering in the desert,” said Sam Essak, who became president of the congregation in January.

Shir Hadash was forced to find a new location when Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue joined with Congregation Beth Israel and moved from Mequon to Glendale.

Shir Hadash had rented space from BENT for much of its 23-year life. It left Mequon this past spring, putting its ark and other equipment in storage as it searched for a new home.

In the interim, the congregation has been holding services at members’ homes and venues around the Milwaukee area, including Plymouth, part of the United Church of Christ, and at the Quaker Meetinghouse in Riverwest.

Essak said that there were some clear parameters as the congregation searched for a new home.

“It was important to us not to own, because we’re a small group and a key factor for us was that we did not want to be responsible for a building,” he said. “And we wanted a place that matched ideologically with us. Religiously, [Plymouth] is different, but it is a very liberal and open community.”

The new location also makes Shir Hadash the sole liberal congregation in the city of Milwaukee. Essak said that synagogues members feel excited about the opportunities it presents.

Plymouth is close to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus, and the Shir Hadash wants to reach out to students and others there. Both congregations are members of MICAH (Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Hope. The church has asked the congregation to partner with it on social action initiatives as well.

Because the synagogue’s new home isn’t big enough to accommodate its 80 member units and other attendees, Shir Hadash will hold High Holiday services at Mequon Nature Preserve.

Growing into Judaism

Rabbi David Brusin, the congregation’s founding rabbi, will lead those services. But after the holidays, he and Gordon will spend much of 5774 leading the congregation down a new road. Next June, Brusin plans to retire.

Gordon grew up Brookline and attended college and seminary in Boston. She and Brusin will be part-time rabbis at Shir Hadash, and she will also work part-time at Milwaukee Jewish Day School.

Gordon’s journey to the rabbinate dates back to sixth grade.

“I remember my first real prayer conversation at the age of 11,” she said in a recent interview. “I would write sermons for my parents and give them on the holidays. … I had a religion book, read it cover to cover and would use it to write sermons.”

An only child, Gordon’s parents had moved to Brookline from New Jersey so her father, who is blind, could attend the Perkins School. When he got a job working for the State of Massachusetts, they stayed.

Brookline’s Jewish population was sizeable enough that schools were closed on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. But Gordon’s family didn’t attend synagogue.

Her parents were Baptists and as children, had gone to church almost daily. But they didn’t drive and there were no churches in the area.

So Gordon learned about religion at home, from books, and at the Catholic school where she spent her middle school years. She prayed every morning and night. And in middle school, she learned that Jesus had been Jewish.

As a freshman at Tufts University, she decided to start going to church again. She discovered that the African-American Baptist tradition in which her parents had been raised was very different than the practice of white American Baptists.

Her boyfriend at the time was Jewish, and when his father died, she joined his family to say Kaddish at Harvard’s Hillel House.

“It was my first adult experience with Judaism and I loved it,” she said. She loved the quietness of the service that allowed her to feel close to God and the Torah study, she said.

She began reading and studying independently, and decided in spring of that year that she was going to become Jewish.

She was concerned about how her parents would react, especially because her favorite of the Ten Commandments is the one about honoring your parents. Their response, she said, was, “We’ve always known you were Jewish.”

“So I spent my summer vacation reading and researching,” she said. “I read half the Judaic section at the library, so when I went to take the conversion classes I could have taught them easily because they were meant for people who knew nothing about Judaism.”

“I came and was asking these deep questions,” she continued, “and the rabbi said, ‘If you’re asking questions like this you should probably be going to rabbinic school.’”

After her conversion, she added Jewish studies as a second major and took classes in Ladino, culture and film, eventually earning an excellence in Jewish Studies award upon graduation.

After two years of teaching, she enrolled at Boston’s Hebrew College, a seminary whose five-year rabbinic program is built around studying a different book of Torah each year, and associated texts.

“It was just a phenomenal experience,” she said. “The rabbis really cared about you and your growth as a person and what made you really special and what gifts you had to offer the world.”

Because the school is pluralistic, Gordon said, there were Jews with different points of view on many issues.

“It’s the education that really prepared me for life,” she said, “because there are so many people who have different ways of being and different practices, and at the end of the day we can eat together, we can pray together, we have respect for each other. Most importantly, we can have respectful dialogue with each other.”

Gordon was among a half-dozen candidates considered for the Shir Hadash position, Essak said, and was hired at the end of May. While her day school job is fairly straightforward — she’ll be leading prayers and teaching third-grade Judaic Studies — her role at Shir Hadash is less defined at present.

“I’m hoping to do some service leading and expose people to my style, which will be different,” she said. “I am hugely into education — I have a master’s degree in Jewish education. I want to work with b’nai mitzvah kids and develop a b’nai mitzvah curriculum, and I want to do adult education.”

For now, though, she and her fiancé Joel Berenbaum, an outdoor educator and special education paraprofessional, are settling into their new home on Milwaukee’s North Shore. They’re also getting plenty of exercise, thanks to Clint, their beagle.

“His Hebrew name is Halichon (‘Treadmill’),” Gordon said, “because he needs two 90 minute walks every day.”


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