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Catching Up With Betty Menkin, President Congregation Beth David

Q: How long have you been a member?

A: 33 years

Q: What do you think it’s like to walk into Congregation Beth David for the first time?

A: Well, a couple of weeks ago as I was greeting people at the front door, I jokingly said: “Would you like to know about our specials today?  We have the traditional service in the main sanctuary, Rabbi Alpert is leading an alternative service in the chapel, we have a meditation service in the studio, or we have the youth congregation and tot Shabbat going on in the school wing.”

Q: It’s a smorgasburg!   Would you say our congregation is more experimental?

A: It’s the openness to innovation, the openness to finding different niches for people who have different ways of connecting, and always looking to find additional ways for people to fit in.

Q: How does this openness impact your job as President of Congregation Beth David?

A: I think the most important thing for me is finding that balance between treasuring our long-term members – our core participants – and also being open and innovative with a sense of adaptability and hospitality to attract new participants, whether it’s young families or just people who are Jewish but not just doing anything about it.  I want us to be a center of Jewish engagement in Silicon Valley.

Q: What’s it like being synagogue president?

A: I’m half way through my two-year term and I am almost moved to tears of gratitude with the feeling that people have been willing to help and they’ve got my back and will pitch in.  There are so many people who have the best interests of the synagogue at heart and will do whatever they can to help me help the shul.

Q: What has been your most meaningful experience at Congregation Beth David so far?

A: It was a long time ago but I think my second daughter’s Bat Mitzvah is still a high point because it taught me the real, deep meaning of the word kvell (i.e. Yiddish for when you well-up with joy at seeing your children excel).  Not that it’s not what is done now, but the way she was welcomed to lead all parts of the service, even the ones that were traditionally off limits for a Bat Mitzvah was very meaningful. So long as she was interested in learning new sections of the Torah, she was given both the trust and opportunity. 

Q: I hear you’re a retired MD and ended your career as a hospice doctor.  What sort of skills do you bring from these careers into what you’re doing right now as President?

A: Being a hospice doctor, I was often dealing with families and there were a lot of difficult emotional reactions to unfortunate circumstances.  And I think that every congregation deals with stuff that you didn’t expect and didn’t want to have to deal with and there are high emotions. You have to deal with these emotions before we can start dealing with the facts or the logistics or the plans.  Sitting with your emotions is often the term that’s used in hospice. I can’t fix it but I can accompany you when you’re in that space.

Q: What’s your passion now, now that you’ve retired.

A: Well my favorite job in retirement is puppy raising. In fact, I was just deciding whether I’d do my next President’s column about the dogs.  The congregants at Shabbat services are really good at helping me train the puppy to focus on me.

Q: Do you participate in a program?

A:  Yep, the Canine Companions for Independence program provides free-of-charge, highly trained service dogs for people with disabilities other than blindness.  And the dogs are from their own breeding program, which has gone on for thirty years. The organization is also engaged in collaborative research with several different academic centers concerning animal behavior to optimize the success of the dogs that come out of the breeding program.  

We’re now on puppy number four and the other three are already graduated.  It’s a pretty good record since graduation rates are around fifty percent.

Q: So, maybe it’s you?

A: Well it’s luck of the draw.  It’s my job to see “what’s there” and work with it – kind of like members of the board.  You see what their talents and aptitudes are and, within the spectrum of their abilities, you see what you can do to optimize and make best use of those talents and abilities.  And perhaps adapting to the personality traits that are maybe a little more challenging and keep them from getting in the way.

As told to Congregation Beth David member Mike Diamond.