Story and photos by VANESSA MEUIR
The Congregation Beth Shalom enjoyed feasting and fellowship Friday, June 11, in honor of Rabbi Yossi Feintuch and the new members of the congregation. The rabbi had been away on sabbatical for about four months, hiking the trails of Israel. Those who attended enjoyed a potluck dinner while watching a slideshow of pictures from his trip.
While Rabbi Feintuch was away, the members of the congregation had to work together to fulfill the duties that the rabbi usually officiated.
“He told us, ‘See, it’s like I always tell you, you don’t really need a rabbi,’” said Debbie Kaplan, a congregate.
Many other members of the congregation expressed gratitude not only for the rabbi’s return, but also for the community that the synagogue provides. James Hansen has been attending services for about seven months and is considering becoming a member.
“This is a very warm, loving and friendly place,” he said. “That’s what has been the attraction for me.”
Rose Roberts, who recently converted to Judaism, also expressed appreciation for the congregation. Rabbi Feintuch had been very active in Roberts’ conversion, as he presided over many of the courses she took while studying Judaism.
Roberts explained that going through the conversion process was exciting and that her life has changed since she began attending services at the synagogue.
“I really feel like I’m at home,” Roberts said. “The beliefs, food and music are all just great.”
Rabbi Feintuch moved from the Caribbean to serve the Congregation Beth Shalom. He and his wife, Judy, have been in Columbia for 13 years and plan to continue serving for years to come.
For Judy Feintuch, having her husband away for so long was an adjustment, but one that she was willing to make for his well-deserved sabbatical.
“I missed him a lot, but it was fine,” Judy said. “I thought it was great that he went. The biggest struggle was just that my best friend wasn’t here.”
Barbara Haines organized the welcome-home event and arranged for a cake that bore the outline of the state of Missouri with a Jewish star over Columbia that read, “Home is where the star is.” Haines and other women in the congregation also wrote a song for the rabbi, which they performed near the end of the evening.
While congregants enjoyed the potluck and chatted, Rabbi Feintuch left the festivities to lead a small service in the next room. A crowd of only three gathered at first to join the rabbi in reading and singing from a book titled “Gates of Prayer.” This was a new service that the rabbi added after being inspired by his time spent in Israel.
Rabbi Feintuch is originally from Israel, so his sabbatical served as a way for him to connect back to his roots. His son, an orthodox Jew, currently lives in Israel and walked the trail alongside the rabbi for part of the trip.
“I created the extra service because of the time I spent with my son,” Rabbi Feintuch said. “He is orthodox — and orthodox are very serious Jews — and for them, praying three times a day, day in and day out, is what you do to serve God.”
Rabbi Feintuch chose to hike because he wanted to do something original during his sabbatical. He wasn’t always on the trail during his four months in Israel, but when he was, he would spend the entire day walking.
“He was very isolated,” Kaplan said. “People had planned out ahead of time where to bury the water for him on the trail. This wasn’t a trail where you’re hiking for a bit and then you go back to your hotel at night.”
While walking along the trails of Israel, the rabbi learned more about his country and his faith.
“At some point, I joined a wonderful group that was comprised of many younger people,” Rabbi Feintuch said. “That was a very good experience because it was not just hiking — it was educational.”
The group took the time to study Judaism every day, making note of their geographical location and choosing themes of study appropriate to that. Now that he is back in Columbia, Rabbi Feintuch is able to share his experiences with the congregation, who are eager to learn more about Judaism. His Israel-inspired evening service started small, but many of the congregants caught on and began joining in on the singing and prayer.
“For it being such a small community, there’s always something going on,” Haines said. “It’s so fun.”