Wholly, holy

Wholly, holy


Two synagogues forge a bolder future for Judaism in Baton Rouge
By Gary Perilloux
Generations of Jewish families practiced their faith consistently in Baton Rouge, but they did so in synagogues separated by five miles: B’nai Israel on Kleinert Avenue and Beth Shalom on Jefferson Highway.

That separation changed in 2022. Today, the congregations are together as the Unified Jewish Congregation of Baton Rouge. They’re embarking on a building project at the Kleinert location. And by the end of 2023, they’ll celebrate Hannukah in a bright new sanctuary, worship before a traditional bima and gaze through glass upon a Tree of Life garden.

Rabbi Sarah Smiley and Dr. Steven Cavalier, who led the effort to combine the two Baton Rouge synagogues | Tim Mueller photo

The transition has been thoughtful. A joint synagogue committee began a two-year exploratory process in 2019. They navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, choices about where to build and how to worship, and decided to merge in August 2021. In January, the unification became official. Building plans coalesced throughout 2022; and in July, new Rabbi Sarah Smiley arrived from Kansas amid a whirlwind of renewal.

“It is a very exciting time for the Jewish community of Baton Rouge, and I am thrilled to help the Unified Jewish Congregation go from strength to strength,” said Smiley, who looks forward to helping members merge existing customs and create new ones. “My initial goals are to learn about each legacy congregation and build relationships with everyone.”

Deep roots
Jewish roots run deep in Baton Rouge, and they’re entwined with colonial settlers in New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi. In 1766, Jewish immigrant Isaac Fastio arrived in New Orleans and formed a trading partnership in Pointe Coupee Parish 14 years later with Benjamin Monsanto, who would move to Natchez as Mississippi’s first Jewish settler. A Dutch Jew, Maurice Bennett, established himself as a leading Baton Rouge merchant in the early 19th century, according to the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life. But Baton Rouge developed no sustained Jewish community until the mid-1800s.

Then, French and German Jews from Alsace and Bavaria settled in Baton Rouge, where they endured the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1858. That tragedy necessitated establishment of the Jewish Cemetery on North Street, and a downtown synagogue followed in multiple locations, culminating with Temple B’nai Israel near present-day b1Bank headquarters at Laurel and 5th streets. By 1954, Jewish worshippers moved to the modern Congregation B’nai Israel synagogue on Kleinert Avenue near St. Joseph’s Academy. Nearly a decade earlier, though, a disagreement over Zionism divided the congregation.

In 1945, under the leadership of Rabbi Walter Peiser, B’nai Israel affirmed “our nation is America and our religion is Judaism,” as documented by the Institute of Southern Jewish Life. That stance rejected the idea that Jews needed a separate homeland. Some 29 Jewish families disagreed and created a new Liberal Synagogue on Acadian Thruway, where they worshipped until a 1980s name change to Congregation Beth Shalom and move to Jefferson Highway.

Over 77 years, the schism softened. Members of both congregations realized their common bond of Reform Judaism—and their joint Baton Rouge journey—made them stronger together, said Dr. Steven Cavalier.

“You’ll find very, very few American Jews now that aren’t supportive of the state of Israel,” said Cavalier, who serves as president of the new Unified Jewish Congregation of Baton Rouge. That trend made unification more doable, he said, and UJC is establishing worship practices for its over 300 families to incorporate traditions from both former congregations.

“The differences now are fairly small,” said Cavalier, who cited a desire to inspire younger Jews as one motivation for merging. “I think for a lot of reasons, diversity in a community is a good thing. If you want to attract Jewish people, it helps to have a Jewish community. You have to look to the future, and you have to plan for the future, and we want to have a community that is appealing to young people.”

A new home
Two key quandaries faced the unified congregation: What do we call ourselves and where do we worship? From Hebrew, “B’nai Israel” transliterates to “Children of Israel” while “Beth Shalom” reads as “House of Peace.” Committees tinkered with “B’nai Shalom” or “Beth Israel,” but members didn’t warm up to either name. By default, the working name of “Unified Jewish Congregation of Baton Rouge” became the actual name.

The existing synagogues were uncannily similar in size: each about 6 acres; each about 19,000 square feet under roof. Ultimately, Cavalier said layout drove the decision, with the squarish Kleinert property more suitable for expansion. The elongated Jefferson Highway site eventually will be conveyed to next-door Jefferson Baptist Church.

The synagogue on Kleinert Avenue will be expanded in coming years. | Rendering courtesy of RHH Architects

With that November decision, the UJC board culled through proposals and selected Baton Rouge-based RHH Architects to design the Kleinert expansion. Principal Trula Remson and her RHH team visited Temple Emanu-El in Dallas to study what the late critic David Dillon called “the finest architect/artist collaboration in the Southwest.”

Dallas architect Gary Cunningham, who shepherded that mid-century temple’s 2016 renovation with a new 500-seat sanctuary, served as RHH’s architectural sherpa, Remson said. Her firm’s foundation in residential architecture also helped, because commercial buildings evolve as an assemblage of systems while homes thrive on warm elements, she said.

“It’s the same with a church or synagogue,” Remson said. “Those things that are sacred and reverent deserve more detail, and I think that’s been a strength of our team.”

Of the new design RHH unveiled at a June neighborhood meeting, Remson described the challenge of capturing both spiritual intimacy and grandeur in one sanctuary. An epiphany came with the choice of operable sanctuary walls, allowing an intimate 75-seat worship space to expand into social space and seat 450 for High Holy Days and large gatherings.

Few appreciate Baton Rouge’s Jewish community more than James Bullman, who grew up in rural Wills Point, Texas. The cattle-ranching Bullmans were the only Jews most people in Van Zandt County ever met. The nearest synagogue lay miles away in Dallas.

Imagine Bullman’s surprise upon arriving at LSU on his 18th birthday and learning his randomly assigned roommate was a Kentucky Jew, steered to Baton Rouge by Louisville Rabbi Jon Adland. Eighteen years later, that rabbi’s niece is Bullman’s wife.

“It’s Jewish geography,” Bullman said with a chuckle. “It’s how the world works.”

Foundation Fact: Donors with charitable funds at the Foundation have contributed to the capital campaign for expanding and renovating the synagogue on Kleinert Avenue. If you want more infomration about the campaign, please contact Lois Smyth at (225) 387-6126.

Amanda Bullman’s childhood congregation, Beth Shalom, became the couple’s Baton Rouge sanctuary. In 2016, they walked in—weary-eyed and sleep-deprived—for newborn son Noah’s circumcision. Expecting a small ceremony led by the rabbi and by mohel Mark Posner, they instead found throngs of Beth Shalom members and a warm banquet reception. In Noah’s birth year, when flooding damaged over 60,000 area homes, James Bullman remembers Beth Shalom’s response—providing hundreds of daily meals to families stranded at the Celtic Media Centre—as a watershed moment in his faith.

“There is something special about the Baton Rouge Jewish community,” he said.

In years to come, Noah and his 2-year-old sister, Sofie, will discover another special legacy. In the late 1990s, Lee and Brenda Berg were so moved by visiting the U.S. Holocaust Museum they provided a gift to the B’nai Israel Foundation in Baton Rouge. The gift funds an annual trip to the museum and other Washington, D.C., landmarks for local Jewish students who complete their Confirmation studies. Today, the Bergs cherish a scrapbook filled with a quarter-century of letters thanking them for the once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“It’s been a terrific joy in my lifetime to have the young people understand what the Holocaust meant to our religion,” said Lee Berg, who’s encouraged by the unification of Baton Rouge’s synagogue. When the Unified Jewish Congregation of Baton Rouge celebrates its bicentennial in 2058, and looks back at what was accomplished in 2022, “I hope they’ll look back with pride,” he said. “I hope they’ll look back with an understanding that one Jewish community, as opposed to two, will be stronger.”

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