Bolton Street Synagogue celebrates 36 years in operation


On June 10, Bolton Street Synagogue held a service to commemorate its 36th anniversary. As congregants watched, the Torah was passed from one former synagogue president to another, ending with current president Leslie Seid Margolis.

The gesture is symbolic of the synagogue’s history — one not only of religious worship, but of inclusion, service and social justice.

A black-and-white photo of two women sitting with babies
From left: Gail Green and Jeannette Karpay with their newborn children at the first Bolton Street Synagogue organizational meeting in 1986 (Courtesy of Kenneth Karpay)

“Most synagogues claim that they’re warm and welcoming, but we really walk the walk,” said Joy Mandel, one of the synagogue’s former presidents and the current chair of its 36th anniversary celebrations committee.

Bolton Street Synagogue was founded in 1986, when Rabbi Earl Jordan was let go from the ranks of Beth Am Synagogue. He conducted an organizational meeting with several families who were in search of a new synagogue — one with more liberal goals in mind.

Kenneth Karpay, a founding member of the synagogue, notes that inclusivity and fostering a diverse community was always the synagogue’s aim. “[It was] very open and welcoming to everybody … whether you were Jewish by birth, whether you converted, whether you were gay, whether you were white or Black,” he recalled.

The synagogue’s openness to LGBTQ congregants was especially noteworthy. It was founded in the ‘80s, during the midst of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that alienated many LGBTQ people from their religious communities.

For Karpay, Bolton Street Synagogue hit a specific sweet spot that was not met by other synagogues in the area. It was more liberal and open than many Conservative and Orthodox synagogues, but still espoused traditional practices more than some more Reconstructionist synagogues did. Services still included Hebrew songs and prayers, which many congregants were more familiar with due to their Jewish upbringings.

The synagogue started life as an unaffiliated house of worship, identifying as Reconstructionist rather than Orthodox, Conservative or Reform. The freedom from religious convention was important to the founding families, as it allowed them to pursue whatever causes they wanted. However, in the past few years, Bolton Street Synagogue has been affiliated with the Reform movement.

Bolton Street Synagogue’s openness also extended to interfaith families, who often felt unwelcome in the Jewish community at the time. Many other synagogues were not so open to the idea of interfaith families attending their services, and Bolton Street offered them a safe haven where they were accepted.

Mandel notes that while they started out with a membership of around 30 families, that number has grown to over 200 since the synagogue first opened.

“We place a big emphasis on volunteerism,” Mandel said. “When we started, we didn’t have any paid staff. We had a part-time rabbi, and we didn’t have an administrator. … Our religious school started a few years after, and [all of the teachers] were volunteers. We’ve gotten a little more professional since, but our emphasis is still on volunteers. Most of our committees and programming are volunteer-run … so there’s a big commitment to volunteering to make the synagogue a happy place.”

Festivities for the 36th anniversary are going to continue throughout the year. Several members of Bolton Street Synagogue have put out a cookbook of community recipes that anyone can order on the synagogue’s website. The 36th anniversary celebrations committee is working on additional events for the fall to be announced at a later date.

“One of my goals is to work with the board, the executive committee, the rabbi and the congregation to make sure we can continue for another 36 years,” said Margolis, the current president. “So we can keep going, and we can maintain the things about Bolton Street Synagogue that make us a special place to be.”

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