On December 4, 1968, Rabbi Jacob Singer met with a small group of Jews who wished to form a new congregation. On January 21, 1969, with 46 charter families, the Articles of Incorporation was granted to the “Traditional Reform Synagogue of Greater Seattle,” later known as Temple B’nai Torah.
Temple B’nai Torah’s first meeting place was the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church. Our first Torah was a small scroll that, until World War II, had been used to train Bar Mitzvah boys at a synagogue near Warsaw, Poland. This Torah was rescued from the Holocaust by a heroic but unknown Jew who wrapped the parchment around his chest as he made his way first to the Russian border and then to Israel. The first Ark to house this small but precious Torah was created by Rabbi Singer’s wife, Raida, from a toy box lined with silk fabric.
From these modest beginnings, the community that is Temple B’nai Torah was born. Temple B’nai Torah moved into its first true home on the south end of Mercer Island in 1977, the culmination of five years of work and planning. Tragedy struck on June 9, 1977, when an arson blaze destroyed the still new building. That night, determined to save our two Torahs, Rabbi Singer put on a fireman’s hat and jacket and raced into the burning building. The Torahs were saved, and like the burning bush that Moses saw, the building was destroyed but the congregation was not consumed. It went on to rebuild, and, two years later had yet another home on Mercer Island.
To the congregation’s deep sorrow, Rabbi Singer, alav ha shalom, was diagnosed with cancer in 1980 and died on April 8, 1982. A congregant, Cantor David Serkin-Poole, assumed the position of Cantor and interim spiritual leader of the Temple. On June 24, 1985, Rabbi James Mirel was elected Rabbi by the congregation.
During Rabbi Mirel’s tenure, the congregation grew rapidly, necessitating one final move, this time to Bellevue. Our Temple is now located on three acres of wooded land. The Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle and its preschool are adjacent to our site, creating a true Jewish campus on the Eastside. Our congregation “came home” to its new Temple with a historic 10 mile “Torah Stroll” on May 24, 1998.
More than seven hundred members took turns carrying the four sacred Torah scrolls the ten mile trek through Mercer Island, across the I-90 bridge and through Bellevue’s parks and greenbelts. The skies threatened, occasionally volunteered a few drops of refreshing rain, but the sun was shining when we arrived home. On May 28, 1998, we held a Dedication Ceremony that was both spiritual and secular, a coming together of religious and community leaders to mark an auspicious new beginning.
In the last several years, we have turned the 18,000 square foot building, a structure of wood and concrete, steel and glass, into our spiritual home, where worship, learning and acts of loving kindness abide. While we appreciate our building, it is the people who are Temple B’nai Torah. Through good times and bad, we have remained true to our mission: to be a supportive community for Jews of different backgrounds and practices, Jews who are united in their desire that our new building be a place for the performing of mitzvot, for acts of righteousness, for meaningful study and where the joyous sound of people at prayer will be heard.
In late 2012, after serving our congregation for 27 years, Rabbi Mirel announced his retirement as of June 30, 2014. A search committee was formed to find the best Rabbi for our community. The search committee used the resources and processes recommended by the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform movement’s rabbinic association. Through an inclusive and comprehensive process, the search committee received input from over 300 congregants during the search, learning what the needs and dreams were of congregants. Many candidates were reviewed and interviewed but the right match for our congregation was not found.
Realizing that we had not found the right person, the Board decided to continue the search after Rabbi Mirel’s retirement, but to engage an interim Rabbi to assist with the transition. Again using the resources and processes of the CCAR and following review of several candidates, an Interim Rabbi, David A. Lipper, was selected.
On July 1, 2014, Rabbi Mirel became our congregations first Emeritus Rabbi, and Rabbi David A. Lipper became our first Interim Rabbi. With Rabbi Lipper at the helm as Interim Rabbi, the search for the position of Senior Rabbi continued. After reviewing several candidates for the position, just as the previous year, we did not find the right match. By this time, many congregants and staff had developed very positive feelings about Rabbi Lipper. He was thoroughly engaged in the work of the congregation, moving us forward under his leadership. Our community had worked with him, prayed with him, taken his classes, and received pastoral care. We felt he reflected the values of our community, shared our vision, was compassionate, a great teacher, inspiring, had good organizational skills and knowledge and he was well-liked by staff, the board and congregants.
The Board realized that we had already found the right Rabbi for the congregation, albeit unintentionally. Consequently, the Board asked Rabbi Lipper if he would agree to stay on as our Senior Rabbi if the CCAR allowed, and if our congregation approved.
Rabbi Lipper felt our congregation was a good fit for him, enjoyed his work in our community, and he and his wife loved living in the Pacific Northwest, so he enthusiastically agreed. The Board petitioned the CCAR for a waiver of their policy that prohibits interim Rabbis from becoming Senior Rabbis. The CCAR, knowing that we had conducted a thorough search, granted the waiver. The Board then recommended Rabbi Lipper to the congregation as Senior Rabbi. On Thursday, February 26, the congregation met and endorsed the Board’s recommendation for Rabbi Lipper to become the next Senior Rabbi of Temple B’nai Torah.
On July 1, 2015, Rabbi David A. Lipper became our congregation’s third senior rabbi and, on October 16, 2015, Rabbi Mirel formally installed Rabbi Lipper during Shabbat services. A weekend of celebration followed, with events for our children and adults (and pets!), concluding with our second congregational photo which hangs in the halls of Temple B’nai Torah, as the next chapter in our congregational life begins.
While much has changed over the years, including our building and some of our clergy, we remain committed to maintaining the closeness that characterizes our community and leads many of our members to consider our congregation our second home. We remain a community dedicated to Jewish prayer, study and tikkun olam (repairing the world).