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Three decades ago, a group of mostly Anglo immigrants living in Beersheba's absorption center planted a seed for a Masorti congregation in the City of Abraham. Today, Eshel Abraham has grown into one of the Negev capital's most vibrant religious communities.
"There were about 20 of us at the beginning," recalls Razelle Weiss, one of the original members. "Most of us made aliya in 1975, had gone through ulpan together, and were living in what is now called the Altshul, the old absorption center. Most of us were Conservative Jews. I was still single at the time, but many of the older couples had children and they wanted a place where they could provide education and celebrate holidays and simchas, so we decided to get something going. At first, we held Friday night and Shabbat services in a school, then at the local youth hostel, with High Holiday services conducted in a large air raid shelter," she recounts.
Shortly thereafter, Weiss married Aaron Leeper. As fate would have it, their daughter Ma'ayan's life events bracketed the synagogue's growth.
"By early 1983, the city had given us the shelter, and our daughter had just been born. We wanted more than just a naming ceremony, so her brita was the first in our own shul. We wrote our own ceremony - we davened the evening prayer Ma'ariv and read portions of the Torah that related to her name. Several years passed, and first the Goldstein Center was built, and finally a new sanctuary was added - just in time for Ma'ayan's bat-mitzva. I remember Pinhas Vardin, the head of the building committee, pushing the contractors to finish the sanctuary in time. Ma'ayan's was the first bar- or bat-mitzva held in the new sanctuary," says Weiss.
When Pinhas and Esther Vardin moved to Beersheba in 1982, they gave the fledgling congregation a boost.
"We'd been living in Jerusalem but moved to Beersheba to be closer to our children and grandchildren," says Pinhas. "We sort of fell into the congregation. I met the young American rabbi, Jonathan Perlman, and he invited me to services. That first time I saw two things that astounded me: During the service, I sensed something happening behind me, and when I turned to look I saw women putting on prayer shawls - something I'd never seen before. Then I was surprised again when I was called up for an aliya and the rabbi asked me what my mother's name was. Before that, I'd only heard a person's father's name used," he says.
"These were small things," Vardin says, "but for me they became very big things later on."
The Vardins arrived just in time for the congregation's major fundraising drive.
"A new building was being planned, and I jumped right in. I've been working for the shul ever since," Vardin says, noting that he's continuously been on the board, has served as president three times and also served a term as president of the Masorti Movement in Israel.
Raising enough money to build a shul was daunting.
"It was a big leap of faith," says Rabbi Perlman, the congregation's prime fundraiser. "We'd been using the air raid shelter for a long time. No one wanted that to be permanent, so we decided to push ahead. We applied for land from the municipality and were delighted when we didn't meet any serious opposition. They gave us several site options, and we selected a plot on Sderot Yerushalayim in what was then an undeveloped neighborhood. After that, of course, we needed money to build the building."
The congregation started with a successful fundraising drive among their own members but soon realized that they'd have to go abroad to seek larger contributions.
"I traveled to the United States to meet with our sister synagogues and potential donors," says Rabbi Perlman. "In Baltimore, I met several committed Zionists, including Marvin and Jane Shapiro. The Shapiros helped us, and then led us to Harold and Beth Goldsmith."
The Goldsmiths, also of Baltimore, were founders of a successful chain of clothing stores, and Perlman hoped they'd be willing to make a major gift.
"One evening I drove out to Harold and Beth's home and made my presentation," he recalls. "They seemed to be excited by the prospect of helping establish a Masorti synagogue in the city of Abraham, but after my presentation said they'd need several days to think about it. Those days of waiting were very tense. Finally, just before Shabbat, Beth called to say that she and Harold had decided to make the naming gift for the building. I was just ecstatic, but due to the time difference I had to wait until Sunday to pass on the good news to Israel."
In less than a year's time, the Goldsmith Educational Building was standing. Beth Goldsmith recalls the groundbreaking ceremony.
"That day is etched in my memory forever," she says. "We came as a group of 65 Jews from Baltimore to see and to learn and to renew our commitment to the land of Israel. We stood on that great expanse of land - at that time, it was just an open field - and we put our shovels into the earth. It was a moment that cemented our bond to this land and to our people."
The seed they planted 30 years ago has flourished.
"Our congregation is unique," Vardin says. "The Goldsmith Building is open every day. We have seven kindergartens and nursery schools serving children from 18 months to six years. Our youth movement, NOAM, meets two afternoons a week, and every night we have classes of some kind. We've hosted large community Seders at Pessah, and on Purim we make and distribute mishloah manot to the absorption center. We were also instrumental in the establishment of an alternative cemetery."
The cemetery, Vardin says, is legally a separate entity but one that was desperately needed.
"Many non-Jewish Russian immigrants come to Beersheba, live here, and then pass away. Because they aren't Jews, burial has been problematic. We worked very hard to create a split cemetery, with a traditional area on one side and an alternative area, Alenuha Nehoma, on the other for non-Jews. We offer the families of the deceased a service that has meaning for them, not just a few words of mumble-jumble."
In her "happy birthday" message to the congregation, chairperson Irit Zmora compared the synagogue's growth with that of a person: "In Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Teima described the human life cycle. In the early stages of life, people accumulate wisdom and experience. By the age of 30, they attain full physical strength, but their development doesn't stop; it continues to grow. The longer they live, the more wisdom and understanding they accumulate."
Future growth for Congregation Eshel Abraham includes the construction of a youth education center, for which land has already been allocated. Beyond that, "whatever else the members of the congregation and the rabbi can possibly imagine and envision," Zmora says.
"Congregation Eshel Abraham has been a societal miracle in many ways. We'll continue growing in our service to the community at large and to the nation of Israel."
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