Corvallis' Beit Am synagogue marks half century

For The Jewish Review
Beit Am, the Jewish community located in Corvallis, Ore., means “house of the people” in Hebrew. The synagogue, however, didn’t have any house or facility to call their own for many years. The “house” was purely a metaphor of the close-knit nature and soul of this unique community. 
For decades, the Beit Am community operated out of a small house on 36th Street in town and the members quickly outgrew their residential-style space. Today, a beautiful synagogue stands in Northwest Corvallis, complete with a deck overlooking the Oregon Coast Range. Only in 2019, after several years of comprehensive planning, architectural design and working towards honoring the vision of early Beit Am members did the current facility open. 
Even before the first Beit Am house opened in 1982, the Jewish community was officially founded in 1974. And before Beit Am existed as an organized center for families, learning, and holiday celebration in Corvallis, a group of strong determined women gathered as a Hadassah group. Their early support and fundraisers for the young State of Israel in the 1950s and 1960s solidified the   foundation of incremental growth pre-Beit Am. 
Three pillars quickly united the steadily growing Jewish families in the area: Hadassah, Hillel and Beit Am. In the mid-1970s and 1980s, several Israeli families came to Oregon State University to spend their sabbatical. It’s no coincidence that they found Beit Am. Early members such as Uri Singer, enthusiastically spoke about the warm and welcoming backdrop in Corvallis. 
“You won’t regret moving [from Haifa, Israel] to Corvallis, Oregon for your two year sabbatical,” Singer said to Stella and Zigi Wenkert.
The Wenkerts are just one Israeli family who assimilated into Corvallis; they took classes at OSU, raised their children, prioritized various extracurricular activities, and of course discovered Beit Am. 
“We took Uri’s advice to come to Corvallis and we were introduced to Ze’ev and Mimi Orzech. My two years in Corvallis were so fulfilling,” Stella Wenkert recalled in July 2023 in Haifa. 
Beit Am connections last a lifetime. It’s all based on the fundamentally pluralistic and cooperative values of the community. The Orzechs’ legacy as pioneers of Beit Am in the 1970s is cherished both by old and new members. Countless other individuals tirelessly contributed to the inclusive, multifaceted, independent, and powerhouse of a Beit Am that stands strong today. 
Community member Amy Buccola says, “Beit Am encourages people to become participants and leaders in the community; we honor each others’ differences. Our inclusive values are at the core of what we do- Beit Am doesn’t ask for any payment or ticket in order to attend High Holy Day Services. Everyone is welcome, no questions asked.”
Today, few charter members and founders of Beit Am are still with us, yet their memory and spirit can be felt in the presence of the building and between interactions and relationships occurring between members. In order to cater to the vast majority of Jews in the mid-Willamette Valley region, Beit Am currently offers a rotation of different denominational traditions and Shabbat services each week. Its post-denominational uniqueness sets Beit Am apart from any other synagogue. Rabbi Phil Bressler offers educational opportunities for Jews of diverse identities and experience levels. He has contributed to the accessible, compassionate, and eclectic vision of Beit Am’s vitality that has never wavered. 
“Beit Am has stuck together no matter what. The priority has always been to stick together as a community despite religious differences. I lead High Holy Day Services in a Conservative manner with Reform influence while using a Reconstructionist prayer book with full liturgy,” says Rabbi Bressler. 
In addition to the various religious traditions offered, social and cultural groups have emerged post-pandemic and offer a deep sense of friendship and learning for members. For instance, Jews Who Schmooze, a recurring weekly discussion group centered around Jewish identity was created by Leslie Levy and has grown over this past calendar year.
Rachel Peck, another community member, shares, “Beit Am was such a warm and welcoming community when I moved here in 2005. A community member invited [my husband and I] to a surprise birthday after the first Friday night service we attended. I really value that we work to accommodate everyone in the area.”
Next year, Beit Am humbly celebrates their 50th anniversary. It’s no small feat for the suburban, rurally-influenced college town community. There’s been challenges and obstacles along the years in Beit Am obtaining resources and a safe space for its members. They’ve persevered and are prepared to support a new generation of active learning, such as the children’s Sunday Beit Midrash which has never served a larger demographic than today. Beit Am is a family emphasizing fusion, diversity, and acceptance which has paved the road for many more years of triumph and growth. 
Beit Am’s jubilee year will kick off with a family Havdalah service on October 28, 2023 which will include song, dance, and the sounding of the shofar. Community members are invited to share photos, slides, or film from the past 49 years with Ken Krane, Ken Bronstein, Amy Buccola, Joel Garfunkel, Barbara Grant, Sarah Orzech, or Joni Plotkin (members of the 50th Anniversary Planning Group); if you became a B’nai Mitzvot at Beit Am or served as a previous member or board member, please email to share a special statement. The year-long celebration will lead up to a gala event taking place in November 2024.
Michala Katz is the Zidell Family Ezra Jewish Education Springboard Fellow with Oregon Hillel on the Oregon State University campus. She is also a proud and involved member at Beit Am.



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