By Elena Muller, Lucas Ackerman, Anna Nicholas, and Noah Osborne
Temple Beth-El was originally founded in 1907 as Congregation Beth-el and was initially situated on the Northside of Birmingham. In 1926 Temple Beth-El relocated to its current location, 2179 Highland Ave S. Birmingham, Alabama. It is currently home to over 500 members. The temple was designed by Charles H. McCauley. Twenty-four years later in 1950, Beth-El added the school and administrative wing which are behind the sanctuary. The final additions and renovations to the building came in 1994 and 2011 respectively, with the center wing being added and then most recently the renovations of the entrance area, offices, and library.
Temple Beth-El is named in reverence to the site in Genesis 28 where Jacob dreamed of angels upon a ladder after Jacob woke he stated: “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.” Early the next morning Jacob took the stone he had placed under his head and set it up as a pillar and poured oil on top of it. He called that place “Bethel.” The name Beth-el translates to “House of God.” Temple Beth-El has provided a safe place for Jews in the south. Temple Beth-El has represented a strong community for Jewish people in the Birmingham area throughout the Great Depression, World Wars, civil rights struggles, and the founding of the State of Israel, Temple Beth-El’s members have supported each other and experienced a great deal of glory and struggle together as a community.
Temple Beth-El is a member of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. Conservative Judaism is one of the primary Jewish belief systems in North America and is starting to become more popular throughout the world. Conservative Judaism’s goal is to effectively balance Jewish tradition and modern ideas. Beth-El’s specific ideas are clearly outlined in their mission statement which declares: “Temple Beth-El is an inclusive and welcoming congregation that fulfills the spiritual, educational, and social needs of its members. Temple Beth-El is committed to meaningful and relevant lifelong learning, joyful worship, and fulfillment of mitzvot with a special focus on Tikun Olam. Temple Beth-El is a Center for Jewish Living for its members and for the general community.” The services at Beth-El do a good job of this by using a more traditional structuring and Hebrew language, all while having egalitarian ideas in place to successfully balance tradition and modernity.
The leadership at Temple Beth-El starts with Rabbi Stephen Slater. Slater has a plethora of experience when it comes to teaching, travel, and Jewish culture. Other leadership at Beth-El is as follows, Sarah Metzger serves as the Music & Youth Director, Bob Greenberg is the Executive Director, Dan Weinrib is the President of Beth-El’s Board of Directors, and finally, Seth Wolnak serves as the Foundation Board President.
When we visited, we were immediately greeted by several members of the leadership including Rabbi Stephen Slater and his wife Bethany. The staff was extremely welcoming, kind, and helpful in directing us and giving us extra information about certain aspects of the temple. The Saturday morning service mainly consisted of prayer and readings out of the Hebrew Bible recited in Hebrew by Rabbi Slater and the hazzan. Many of the recitations were sung as a song with a rhythm and beat. This style of worship helped portray the more traditional side of the temple. Upon visiting, it was made very clear how seriously the people who attend the services take them. Much like the temple’s role in the community, the service and its attendees were very engaged with both the worship and each other. People hugged, chatted with, and seemed very pleased to be worshiping alongside the people surrounding them. While viewing these engagements, we realized that the members did not only just view the service as a time to worship, but also as a chance to spend quality time with the other members of the congregation. Temple Beth-El uses two books during its services. The first book is the Siddur or prayer book. The other book is the Pentateuch.
Temple Beth-el offers many opportunities for learning through their religious school. Temple Beth-el’s Religious School states that its mission is “to create active committed Conservative Jewish adults. We strive to touch our student’s souls, nurture their Jewish identities and foster a desire for continued connection and growth in the larger community.” Beth-el’s primary aspects in their curriculum for teaching the youth includes: Integration of Judaism, which focuses on learning history and ancient traditions of Judaism to improve understanding and build for the future, Hebrew and the Land of Israel, which provides students with skills and vocabulary necessary to participate in all aspects of Jewish life, and finally Life Long Learning which equips students with the ability to continue to learn about their faith through life. Temple Beth-Eel also has educational opportunities for adults as well which includes Torah conversations and Jewish parenting classes. Temple Beth-El is very involved in the outside community as well, participating in multiple outreaches such as Serving the Homeless. Also, there is a Gen XYZ Program that provides social opportunities for the elderly members of Beth-El. Overall, Temple Beth-El is community-focused and desires to do good work within Birmingham.
Temple Beth-el is a wonderful conservative Jewish temple. Beth-el’s strength comes from its community and strong leadership. Beth-el’s aptitude and willingness to be involved inside and outside of the Jewish community is also a strong suit of theirs. Temple Beth-el has been around for many years and will continue to be for many more years in the foreseeable future.
Address: 2179 Highland Ave S., Birmingham, AL 35205
Congregation Organized: 1907
Current Site Opened: 1926
Affiliation: United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism
Sources for Further Reading:
Neusner, Jacob. Understanding American Judaism / The Rabbi and the Synagogue. Ktav Pub. House, 1975.
Sklare, Marshall. An American Religious Movement: Conservative Judaism. University Press of America, 1985.
Temple Beth-el Leadership. “By-Laws of Congregation Beth-el.” 2019.
Wertheimer, Jack. New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today. Princeton University Press, 2020.
Published December 17, 2019; updated December 30, 2019.