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Temple Beth Israel (Eugene, Oregon)

Temple Beth Israel (בית ישראל) is a Reconstructionist synagogue located at 1175 East 29th Avenue in Eugene, Oregon. Founded in the 1920s or early 1930s as a Conservative congregation, Beth Israel was for many decades the only synagogue in Eugene. The congregation constructed its first building on Portland Street in 1952, and occupied its current LEED-compliant facilities in 2008.

In the early 1990s conflict between feminist and traditional members led to the latter leaving Beth Israel, and forming the Orthodox Congregation Ahavas Torah. Beth Israel came under attack from neo-Nazi members of the Volksfront twice, in 1994 and again in 2002. In both cases the perpetrators were caught and convicted. , led by rabbis Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin and Maurice Harris, Beth Israel had almost 400 member households, and was the largest synagogue in Eugene.

Early history

Temple Beth Israel (בית ישראל) was founded in the 1920s or early 1930s as a traditional Conservative synagogue. In 1952 the congregation constructed a one-story synagogue building on Portland Street, and from that time until the 1990s, Temple Beth Israel was the only synagogue in Eugene.

Schism

In the early 1990s serious divisions developed among the members of the congregation over a number of issues, including personal antagonisms, the rabbi, political differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and
a myriad of additional Jewish cultural/religious issues, such as the acceptance of intermarried couples, adherence to kosher dietary laws, the use of modern language and music during worship services, rewriting of certain prayers such as the Aleynu to make them less ethnocentric, and so on.
However, the biggest source of division, which underlay all others, was "the roles and rights of men and women in the synagogue."

In the mid-1970s the congregation's original rabbi died, and during the 1980s the new rabbi and his feminist wife supported a number of changes to the liturgy and ritual. These included allowing women to read from the Torah and lead the prayers, and changing prayers to be more gender inclusive - for example, using gender-neutral terms and pronouns for God, and adding references to the Biblical matriarchs in prayers like the Amidah, which traditionally only mentioned the Biblical patriarchs. While most congregation members approved of these changes, a minority resisted them.

In the early 1990s a group of newly observant members began holding more traditional services in a back room of the synagogue, complete with a mechitza, a partition separating men and women. The "more feminist-minded" members strongly objected to having a mechitza anywhere in the Temple Beth Israel building, even if it were not in the services they attended. The latter group eventually circulated a petition which stated that either the mechitza would have to be taken down, or those members who wanted it would have to leave. Faced with this opposition, in 1992 the Orthodox members left, renting new premises and hiring their own rabbi, creating Eugene's second synagogue, originally called "The Halachic Minyan", and in 1998 renamed "Congregation Ahavas Torah".

Attacks by neo-Nazis

On March 20, 1994, Chris Lord, an individual associated with the Volksfront and American Front, fired ten rounds with an assault rifle into the temple, damaging the interior. The attacks were prompted by a newspaper article about several members of Eugene's Jewish community, including a lesbian. Community organizations, including a local gay rights group, responded by standing vigil outside the synagogue during Passover services. Lord and an associate were caught and convicted, and Lord was sentenced to four and a half years in prison.

On October 25, 2002 Jacob Laskey, his brother Gabriel Laskey, Gerald Poundstone, Jesse Baker, and one other man, all members of the Volksfront, drove to Beth Israel with the intent of intimidating the congregants. While a service with 80 members attending was taking place, the men threw rocks etched with Nazi swastikas through the synagogue's stained glass windows, then sped off. The men were caught, pleaded guilty, and convicted, and served sentences ranging from a 6-month work release term and five years to probation, to eleven years and three months in federal prison for the ringleader, Jacob Laskey.

East 29th Avenue building

Originally sized for 75 families, Temple Beth Israel's Portland Street building had been renovated and enlarged over the years to accommodate 250 families and 150 students. Despite these additions, and the loss of members to Congregation Ahavas Torah, the synagogue was not large enough, particularly during the High Holidays, when extra space had to be rented. In 1998, the congregation began planning for a new facility.

In 2003 the congregation got a permit to begin construction of a new facility on a vacant 1.37-acre plot of land at the northwest corner of East 29th Avenue and University Street. An initial capital campaign raised more than $1.8 million, which fully paid for the land, and by August 2007 an additional $1.7 million had been raised towards anticipated overall project costs of $5 million.

The environmentally sensitive building was designed by Mel Solomon and Associates of Kansas City and local company TBG Architects & Planners, and built by McKenzie Commercial Construction of Eugene. The building used "energy efficient heating, ventilation and lighting": specific design issues with the building's energy efficiency included the fact that, in accord with Jewish tradition, the sanctuary had to face east (towards Jerusalem), and the largest room in the building, the sanctuary, was also the least-used.

On June 8, 2008 the congregation dedicated its new 24,000 or 26,000 square foot building at 1175 East 29th Avenue. The facility included a sanctuary, commercial kitchen, banquet facilities, and classrooms, and housed the synagogue, the Lane County Jewish Federation, and the local Jewish Family Service. The project ended up costing $6 million, of which $4 million had been raised.

Made of concrete, steel, and wood, the building achieved Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design compliance "through the integration of stormwater management strategies, high efficiency irrigation, the use of recycled and/or recyclable materials, and drought tolerant plantings." Completely recyclable materials used in the structure included carpeting and wood beams.

Recent events

In 2008 Temple Beth Israel participated in Banners Across America, an "interfaith witness against torture coordinated by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture," as part of the Jewish Campaign Against Torture. Organized by Rabbis for Human Rights—North America in honor of Torture Awareness Month, the Jewish campaign included over 25 synagogues which hung banners protesting "the use of abusive interrogation techniques by the American military and intelligence community". , Temple Beth Israel was the largest synagogue in Eugene, with a membership of almost 400 families, and the Talmud Torah and pre-school had 200 and 40 students respectively. Temple Beth Israel is a member of the Community of Welcoming Congregations, "an Oregon and SW Washington interfaith ministry and advocacy organization working toward full inclusion and equality for transgender, lesbian, bisexual, gay and questioning persons." The rabbis were Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin and Maurice Harris. Harris is one of the signators of The Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science From American Rabbis, part of the Clergy Letter Project which "encourages and embraces the teaching of evolution in schools".

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External links

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