Beth Shalom houses the Auckland Congregation for Progressive Judaism. The story of Beth Shalom begins with an inaugural meeting at the home of the Pezaro's, one of the Congregation's founding families, on March 6, 1952.
Forty people attended the meeting where the decision was made to form the Liberal Jewish Congregation of Auckland. Shortly after on April 14, the first Shabbat service took place in rooms in Queen Street and for the next two years, regular services were held in the Royal Commonwealth Society rooms in Auckland city.
Later, in 1953, land was purchased at 180 Manukau Road, Epsom. On the land was an old foundry which was then cleaned, refurbished and converted into a small synagogue seating one hundred. The congregation continued to grow and with great physical labour and fundraising from the community, a new temple (synagogue) was built and designed by the respected Auckland architect Albert Goldwater. The building was opened and dedicated in 1960.
Student Rabbi John Levi, now Rabbi Emeritus of Melbourne, was Beth Shalom’s first rabbi and since that time the community has been well served by both student and ordained rabbis.
In 1983 Rabbi Paula Winnig became the first woman to be appointed to a rabbinical position in New Zealand. The American born Rabbi Ed Rosenthal served the congregation for four years from 1987-1991. During this time the congregation flourished and grew in considerable numbers under his young and enthusiastic leadership. By 1989 Beth Shalom had outgrown its facilities and a new building project was undertaken. The old foundry, which served as a social hall and Hebrew School, was demolished and extensive alterations and rebuilding began. The old Sanctuary was converted in the social hall and in the new Sanctuary, classrooms and offices were built. As much work as possible was undertaken by the community itself and this included all the finishing and decorating. Even the then Rabbi was not exempt from the physical work involved. In March 2006, Beth Shalom celebrated its 50th anniversary with the Rabbi returning to Auckland from America to assist in leading the celebrations.
Towards the end of the 90s and in early 2000, the Congregation were fortunate to engage a husband and wife team to lead the community – Rabbis David and Patti Kopstein. Together they brought a new wave of enthusiasm and an increased focus on education, which in turn led to a large increase in numbers at Beth Shalom. The Rabbis also introduced two favourite events of the community; birthday blessings on the bimah for the children, and the monthly pot luck dinner after Friday Shabbat services.
More recently, Rabbi Dean Shapiro led the Congregation from July 2008 -2011. During Rabbi Dean Shapiro’s extraordinary period of leadership the Congregation further developed with new initiatives such as the planting of a Biblical Garden and a vegetable garden. The Congregation's Hebrew School students help plant and nurture the vegetables and subsequently deliver the produce to the City Mission as tzedakkah. The Auckland Congregation considers itself very fortunate to also have a dedicated group of volunteer service leaders and torah readers who have learnt so much over the years from the Congregation's Rabbis (including from visiting Rabbis and Cantors) and who are able to provide services for the Congregation when there is no Rabbinic presence.
As a synagogue is also a study and social centre, Beth Shalom runs a number of activities for its members.
Jewish education is a very important aspect in any Jewish community, especially one so far from the facilities available in the USA, Europe and Israel. The community is very proud of their Hebrew School which has grown from about 14 pupils in the late 1970s to accommodating some 55 pupils. The Congregation currently has an Israeli Jewish Educator, Udi Dvorkin, leading the school with the assistance of six teachers who work with him on a voluntary basis. Udi Dvorkin also leads adult education classes, which are also delivered by lay people in the community, including a well-subscribed weekly Jewish History programme. Members also have access to the library, which contains both religious and secular works with Jewish content.
The Burial and Benevolent Society is responsible for burials and arranges funerals for both members and non-members. It also ensures that the Congregation has ritual food such as matzos (unleavened bread) and kosher wine for Passover (Pesach), and helps people in need.
The Community Care Group cares for the elderly, sick and disadvantaged in the community, keeping in touch with visits, cards, gifts and hospitality. In the early days of the Auckland Congregation, this group was largely responsible for fundraising. Without their dedicated work there might not have been the building that stands here today.
The Congregation have also established a Tikkun Olam group. One of the main activities of this dedicated group has been helping Habitat for Humanity to build homes, providing housing for poverty stricken families.
In recent years there has been an increase in immigration which has swelled membership considerably. Today Beth Shalom's congregation number 113 family units and 118 single members. In light of the community's growth, complete refurbishment of Beth Shalom is scheduled for 2013.
Image Header Detail: Beth Shalom Progressive Jewish Congregation of Auckland. Courtesy of Chris Berman.