When Raphael Katz, the genial and popular new rabbi of Netanya's New Synagogue, has a spare moment to reflect on his job, he finds himself thinking about his native South Africa.
"Have you been to Cape Town?" he asks. "The New Synagogue is an Anglo-Saxon community in the middle of Netanya. It's almost like an island unto itself. It's surrounded by non-English speakers but everything here is in English, and most of the people who come here are from England. I always tell people that I feel like I'm at the Seapoint Shul in Cape Town."
Since 1973, the venerable modern Orthodox synagogue, known alternatively as the MacDonald Street Shul - or MacDonald's - has been not only a house of prayer for its 300 members but also a community center, meeting place, social club and comforting reminder of home in the midst of an often confusing new country.
Lillian Green, London native and wife of one of the synagogue's founders, declares, "I haven't been to too many Israeli shuls, really, so I don't know what they're like, but the New Synagogue is a lot like the shuls we had back in England."
By all accounts, the three words that best describe the congregation at MacDonald's are "English," "elderly" and "involved."
Says community leader Stuart Shammai, "It started off years ago as an American-based congregation, but over the years that has changed. Now it's primarily English, with some Americans and South Africans - the new rabbi is bringing in more South Africans. There are even one or two French. We are fairly United Nations, but maybe 70 percent of us are from England."
A native of Johannesburg, Katz laughs as he recalls his first days as the New Synagogue's rabbi. "My South African accent caused me problems when I first came. People didn't understand my sermons. I was speaking once about the Ten Spies. People in the shul were saying, 'What's all this? Why is this guy going on about 10 spas?' But I think now they've got used to me."
As for the age of most of the shul's members, Katz says, "Most of the congregation have come to Israel late in life, often to retire. That's what it is, really, a mostly older congregation who have come from England to retire. But that's Netanya generally. It's seen by many as a place to get away from the cold and retire to the city's sultry heat. In our section of the city, by the Park Hotel, it's like Miami Beach. It's that type of community."
Despite their mature years, members of the congregation are far from idle. The New Synagogue has been at the forefront of charitable activities in Netanya - so much so, in fact, that the congregation recently received an award of merit from a grateful Netanya municipality.
Explains Shammai, "We have a charity fund called Keren Ezra. For many years now, a substantial part of that fund has been given to the Social Services department of the Netanya municipality. A couple of weeks ago, they gave out 20 prizes. Only one award was given to a synagogue, and that was us."
In addition to needy families and individuals helped by this fund, the New Synagogue also extended assistance to displaced families evacuated last year from Gush Katif, as well as to several families from the north of Israel who fled south during the recent war with Hizbullah.
Katz expands, "I would describe the congregation as people being very involved, very community oriented. As much as they came here to retire and relax, they're still very aware of communal responsibilities and commitments. A lot of charity work. Netanya took on a lot of new immigrants from Russia and from Ethiopia. There's a lot of social work to be done here. People in our shul have responded. The concept of charity in our shul is real."
Not only does the synagogue fight poverty as a community, but many of the shul's members are involved individually with various charities. Shammai, for example, lends his media expertise toward publicizing the work of the Zarcha Hashemesh L'Yakov Education and Charity organization, which provides an array of daycare and outreach services in Netanya's poverty-stricken Dura neighborhood. Other synagogue members are involved with the nearby Laniado Hospital's meals on wheels food distribution programs and other charitable activities. The synagogue also engages in some charitable projects in conjunction with its sister shul, Young Israel of Netanya, the city's other Anglo congregation located a few blocks away.
Although membership at the New Synagogue peaked some 10 years ago and is now holding steady at around 300, the congregation has lately begun to rejuvenate itself, picking up new and younger members. Virtually everyone at MacDonald's credits the shul's new lease on life to the new rabbi, now completing two years of service.
Says Shammai, himself attracted to what he calls this "lovely and thriving" synagogue by the new rabbi, "He is the most wonderful guy you could possibly meet. For a mostly elderly kehila like ours, it's very important to have a rabbi who is pastorally oriented. He's there for you for not only the simchas but for bad times as well."
New people are joining the synagogue, Shammai says, because of Rabbi Katz's personality, his strong religious programming and his sense of community. This sense includes not only regular community dinners and other functions but also visits to the sick in hospitals. "He's just a fantastic fellow. You can always be sure that when you need a friendly face and a cheerful voice, he'll be there for you," says Shammai.
The synagogue boasts other attractions as well. A major draw for many years has been the shul's Henry Koor Judaica Library. With more than 8,000 volumes, the Koor is perhaps one of the largest English-language libraries in Israel. MacDonald's is also probably the only synagogue in Israel with its own amphitheater, right behind the shul. "For a shul to be able to celebrate simchas outdoors in its own open-air amphitheater is simply fantastic," says Shammai.
Aside from such recent events as a Lag Ba'Omer party and barbecue, the amphitheater - with its seating capacity of 160 - is also a ready venue for weddings and bar-mitzvas, as well as for a variety of events staged by local charities supported by the synagogue. The congregation hopes to make its amphitheater a Netanya landmark, available for hire as a setting for simchas, social occasions and theatrical productions.
What's next for the New Synagogue? Says Green, "We're starting a friendship club for people who are alone and not able to get out much to meet people. Here in Netanya, there are a lot of people like that. It's not a young city, let's put it that way. People will get together, talk, make new friends, have speakers and hopefully once a month put on a nice big social evening. It's not going to be just for the shul - we hope it will be for the whole community."
Green promises that the new friendship club will be "social, lively, humorous and fun. We need something light and lively, both here and in this country at the moment."
With its warm sense of fellowship, dedication to charity, community focus and strong sense of caring, MacDonald's has stood for more than three decades as a model for what a synagogue should be.
As Lillian Green says, "We try, we try."
To contact the New Synagogue, at 7 MacDonald Street, call (09) 861-4591; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit www.macshul.org. Rabbi Katz (09) 833-1526.
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