SOMERVILLE – “If we examine our list of allusions to the number 40 in the Torah, we see that in every case, the number 40 stands for the amount of time needed for completion of a task,” said Phil Weiss in his most recent Yom Kippur sermon at Temple B’nai Brith in Somerville.
In his 40 years as spiritual leader of B’nai Brith, Weiss has completed many tasks – from many other sermons drawing on his extensive knowledge of philosophy, to tutoring b’nai and b’not mitzvah – that have helped revive a congregation once in danger of closing. To commemorate Weiss’s 40 years of service, B’nai Brith will hold a dinner in his honor on Saturday, Dec. 14.
“Phil has been a blessing for our community over the years,” said Rabbi Eliana Jacobowitz, the current leader of B’nai Brith. “His gentle guidance and encouragement allowed members of our community to find a way into meaningful engagement with Judaism, even when they had no previous sense of belonging in Jewish community.”
Weiss wandered into B’nai Brith in 1979 during a period of transition for the temple. As the only traditional congregation in Somerville, it was comprised of two distinct groups: old-timers, many of whom were either dying or moving to the suburbs, and young hippies and artists, many of whom were attracted to more alternative havurah communities. Like many nearby congregations, B’nai Brith was hanging on by a thread, and considering closing altogether.
“There was a missing generation when I got here – there were no middle-aged people. There were old people, and then there were the young people, who were finding their way into Somerville because it was affordable and a good place for artists,” said Weiss. At the time, Weiss fell more into the latter category. He was a newly married, newly minted philosophy professor just out of graduate school who had moved to Somerville with his wife Nomi. He was looking for a place to daven on Yom Kippur, and hadn’t yet found anywhere that fit his “neo-traditional, countercultural needs.” He decided to try out the grand old neo-Byzantine shul on Central Street, where he felt immediately at home.
“The sanctuary was beautiful and warm, and I just loved the davening – it was simple, it was straightforward, it was heartfelt,” said Weiss. He began attending more regularly, and since the shul no longer had a rabbi, they began asking Weiss, a philosophy professor at Wheelock College who had studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to lead services. Eventually, Weiss decided to call himself a “Darshan,” which comes from the Hebrew word for “seeker,” “inspirer,” and “explainer,” and took on most of the duties of a traditional rabbi.
As Darshan, Weiss helped cultivate what he sees as B’nai Brith’s unique mix of traditional, heymish Jewish services with Somerville’s eclectic progressivism. “We pray like Orthodox Jews, and we think like Martians,” he said. “There was a spiritual hunger we managed to meet. There was an aura of excitement among people who were totally turned off to suburban, staid synagogue life, and found that there was something thrilling about learning Hebrew and learning how to pray in Hebrew and taking prayer seriously, and learning about being Jewish in an environment which was unintimidating and in which the values of the counterculture were respected.” Thanks to this elusive mix and an influx of young professionals and families over the course of the ’80s and ’90s, B’nai Brith’s enrollment increased from a low point of just 20 families to over 200 at its peak. Today, Weiss estimates 170 families belong.
It is now a full-service congregation with a Hebrew school, numerous adult education courses, and a thriving social action committee. In 2010, the synagogue decided to hire Eliana Jacobowitz as a full-time rabbi, and the two have collaborated on several courses and initiatives.
“I feel a great sense of, at first gratitude that this career that I couldn’t have possibly envisioned for myself happened, and it gave my life a tremendous sense of meaning,” said Weiss, who became Darshan Emeritus last Rosh Hashanah. “I was able to be involved in the lives of families in fairly intimate ways – helping people in their times of trouble and celebrating with them in their times of joy. There’s also a sense of pride that I was able to help build this institution, and it feels like I succeeded in something.”