In 2000 Rabbi Shohama Wiener was invited to lead High Holy Days services at Kona Beth Shalom, a synagogue on the Big Island of Hawaii, where the congregation’s greeting of choice is “Shaloha.” When she wasn’t conducting services or polishing her sermons, the rabbi swam and snorkeled alongside congregants in the nearby Pacific Ocean.
“I thought, ‘Why can’t I find a place like this?’ ” said Rabbi Wiener, who was about to retire from the top job at The Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale and was looking for a pulpit.
About a year and a half later, Rabbi Wiener found an island paradise of her own — in the Bronx.
Soon after she signed on to become the part-time rabbi of Temple Beth-El on City Island, the tiny Long Island Sound islet that sits about a half-mile off the coast of the Bronx.
With its clapboard houses, boatyards, art galleries and cafes, Rabbi Wiener said City Island, home to the 70-year-old nondenominational congregation, weds the serenity of Nantucket Island in Massachusetts with the artistic sensibility of Manhattan’s Greenwich Village.
Beth-El has become an unlikely outpost of Jewish vitality — albeit modest — in a borough that has seen its Jewish population decline during the last half-century and continue to fall sharply over the past decade.
In 2002 there were about 45,100 Jews living in the Bronx, down from 82,000 in 1991, according to the Jewish Community Study of New York. While the demographic changes have left other Bronx-based synagogues hard-pressed for members and funds, Temple Beth-El’s membership has tripled to 60 during the past two years.
“We are reversing the trend,” said Rabbi Wiener, 62, who predicts that Beth-El’s membership will continue to climb as more Jews discover the synagogue that for many years has flown beneath the radar. “Every week I meet someone else on City Island who says, ‘Oh there’s a shul here? And it’s active?’ ”
Rabbi Wiener estimates that about 400 of the Island’s 4,300 residents are Jewish.
At Beth-El’s Kabbalat Shabbat services last week there were only a few empty folding chairs in the modest 75-seat shul. Between prayers, members danced the hora through the narrow aisles as Rabbi Wiener played Jewish folk melodies on her guitar.
Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion Jr., who has been working hard of late to strengthen his ties with the Jewish community, joined in the festivities before addressing the congregation on the importance of fighting anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias in the Hispanic community.
Onlookers might find it hard to believe that just two years ago the synagogue was on its last legs.
“You’d walk in on a Friday night and there would be three or four people there,” said Nathan Graber, 33, who with his wife, Debbie, joined Beth-El three years ago.
With only about 20 members and no rabbi, some congregants worried aloud that the synagogue, founded in 1934 by 17 Jewish islanders, would fold. But a handful of committed members wouldn’t hear of it.
“I said, ‘No, not on my watch,’ ” said Olga Berde, the synagogue’s vice president, who led the search for a rabbi to re-energize the once vibrant synagogue.
At its peak in the 1950s, Beth-El had more than 75 members, a thriving Hebrew school, an active Men’s Club and well-attended social mixers with other City Island houses of worship, according to Hy Cantor, who served as synagogue president for 30 years, until 2001.
At about the same time Beth-El’s aging membership was struggling to keep the synagogue alive, Rabbi Ely Rosenzveig of Congregation Anshe Sholom in New Rochelle — a mutual friend of Berde and Rabbi Wiener — arranged an auspicious meeting between the rabbi and the Beth-El board.
The introduction, Rabbi Weiner said, was “bashert.” Within weeks she began leading monthly Shabbat services at Beth-El, which members affectionately call “Your shul by the sea.”
“It wasn’t Kona but it was exactly what I had been praying for,” said Rabbi Wiener, who in September will begin leading biweekly services at Beth-El. “I feel like I’m on vacation when I cross the City Island Bridge. God is the best placement agent in the world.”
Rabbi Wiener uses wordless melodies, or niggunim, and translated and transliterated prayerbooks to ensure Beth-El’s Shabbat services are accessible to those with only a tenuous understanding of Jewish prayer.
The inclusive atmosphere, along with frequent guest lectures and course offerings that range from Hebrew language to yoga to gardening, has attracted a diverse group of new congregants from throughout the tristate area. They include young singles, elderly couples and same-sex, interracial and intermarried families. Members work as doctors, lawyers, accountants, sailors, a midwife, an astrologist, a yoga master, and in various other professions and trades.
Many congregants say the synagogue’s growth is due in no small part to the efforts of “Rabbi Shohama,” as Rabbi Wiener likes to be called.
“Her very presence has created a magnet,” Berde said. “She has elevated the Yiddishkeit and the spiritual desire to be part of the community.”
It’s not the first time the slight and spry grandmother of five has breathed new life into a Jewish organization.
During her tenure at The Academy for Jewish Religion, where she served 14 years as president, enrollment at the pluralistic rabbinic seminary increased more than tenfold. She also helped launch a cantorial program at the academy and opened a satellite campus in Los Angeles.
“When she came on, the school began to take off and it’s been going gangbusters since then,” said Barry Noskow, the academy’s vice president of operations. “She’s always had a very reassuring manner about her. She’s very warm and honest, and she brings people to her. I think that’s her gift.
“Often when we think of energy, we think of someone high-powered. But she has a very quiet energy.”
Rabbi Wiener’s understated style is what makes her the ideal person to lead the island’s Jewish community, said Jeri Stark, 43, who joined Beth-El about a year ago with her 2-year-old daughter, Sarah.
“She has all the wisdom of the old rabbis,” said Stark, who lives on City Island. “But along with it, she has a warmth of personality, a New Age flavor and a gift for asking questions that empower the people around her.”
Graber said Beth-El’s spirited climate is a far cry from the more traditional Bronx congregations, many of which he and his wife find rigid and insular. At Beth El, he said, “It’s a very eclectic and progressive bunch who are open to new ideas.
“The atmosphere there is a little different from other synagogues,” said Graber, who lives in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx, a 10-minute drive from Beth-El. “But then again, City Island’s a little different from other places.”
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