I have never been more excited about the future of Karaite Judaism in the United States. Over the past few weeks, The Karaite Press (a project of the Karaite Jews of America) has launched a new book, Royal Attire. Last weekend, the sanctuary of the Karaite Jews of America, Congregation B’nai Israel in Daly City, CA, literally overflowed during its inaugural Family Shabbat Service.
And now, I have the pleasure of presenting the most dynamic investment opportunity in the future of Karaite Judaism in the United States. The Karaite Jews of America is undertaking a much-needed renovation of its sanctuary, and an expansion of its existing premises to establish the national Karaite Jewish Cultural Center. The KJA has launched its Foundation for the Future Campaign, with the objective of celebrating the re-dedication of the enhanced and expanded Congregation B’nai Israel in the Summer of 2017.
Today, I interview Maryellen Himell-Ovadia, Volunteer Campaign Director, regarding the project and the vision for the community’s future she shares with her husband, Campaign Chairman David Ovadia. Before I turn to that, please note that between now and December 31, 2016, every dollar donated is matched up to $200k! Click here to make your fully tax deductible gift directly on the KJA Campaign Website, www.Karaites.org.
Q: Why is this the time to invest in this renovation?
There has been a tremendous groundswell of support for this project over the last months, following many years of discussion and some hand wringing about how best to sustain the future of this community and to preserve its legacy. My husband David Ovadia, a structural engineer, past President of Karaite Jews of America and long-time KJA Board Member, had spent years working with others to develop the major components of a coordinated and multi-faceted effort to renovate and expand the synagogue and to enhance programmatic activities. That work became the fundamental building block of our Campaign effort, which over the last months has attracted the support of two major donors from the Karaite Jewish community.
Both of these individuals understood that the work represented real action, and not just talk. Neither live in the Bay Area, but both have stepped up to make significant challenge gift pledges in the amount of $250k and $150k respectively. They, along with my husband and other community leaders, understand the importance of preserving the unique Karaite Jewish culture as a national imperative that goes far beyond the local community. We are now doing all we can to capitalize on these donors’ great generosity by mounting a successful Campaign to match their gifts with the objective of preserving the Karaite Jewish heritage, so that years from now, our children, and our children’s children will not look back on this time and say “we lost our way; we abandoned our roots”. The time is now to ensure that Karaite Judaism thrives, and not be relegated to museum-status.
Q: The building will house a new national Karaite Jewish Cultural Center; what is the vision for that space?
A building without people is an empty shell. And our biggest priority is to create and strengthen community. That means bringing people to the national Karaite Jewish Cultural Center for intellectual engagement, spiritual inspiration, cultural enrichment, and opportunities for social interaction that go far beyond what may be available on a Saturday morning between 9:30 – 12:00. What do we mean by that? Lectures, study sessions, meetings, round-table discussions on a variety of topics, as well as cultural presentations and potential exhibits of art and artifacts relevant to the Karaite Jewish people. And as a locus of activity, the Cultural Center can also facilitate advocacy efforts and expanded communication efforts that range across a variety of Internet platforms. In other words, our goal is to foster both tangible community through events and activities of all kinds, and virtual community through the Web, and through the distribution of important learning tools and historical materials. All we need is the money and leadership to sustain this kind of programming down the road, once the new Center is established.
Q: How have non-Karaite Jews responded to your fundraising inquiries?
I have been astounded by the depth of support for this initiative from the non-Karaite world thus far. I, myself, am not Karaite but am from a Rabbinic Eastern European tradition and I really understand the importance of cross-cultural communication. To reach out to others – to teach and to learn – is one of the most important things one can do as an evolving individual, so my husband and I have brought our concepts to a pretty broad cross-section of leaders in the larger Bay Area Jewish community to get their input. Their strong support makes it clear to us that the time has come not only to strengthen the community from within, but to build stronger bridges to the broader Jewish community. For too long and by too many people, Karaite Judaism has been considered as a fringe element, rather than as a strong branch of the diverse and heterogeneous tree that is world Jewry. We fully believe that the establishment of the Karaite Jewish Cultural Center will go a long way toward redressing that fallacy, and the non-Karaite Jewish community is supporting that concept.
Q: How have Karaite Jews themselves responded to this initiative?
From members of the community young and old we have had tremendous enthusiasm. When asked why he had made a pretty significant gift, one young man whom I quote constantly, said, “I want to be more closely tied to my roots”. That statement has become a kind of motto for me, and a call to action for another key element of the Campaign – not only to build stronger bridges to the rest of world Jewry, but to build stronger bridges to our own youth. At the same time we’re reaching out to the next generation, however, we must take care to listen to the elders in our community. It appears they have much to say. Their voices are also heard in this Campaign effort loud and clear, and we hope that the outcomes will gladden their hearts. We hope that Karaite Jews of all generations and all locales will provide their financial support to this Campaign as soon as possible. We must raise another $250k toward our $1.2m project budget by the end of this calendar year in order to break ground in December. We need the support of everyone in the community, and from friends beyond the Karaite Jewish community, to accomplish that and to re-dedicate our facility next summer. Thanks, Shawn, for providing this platform to spread the message of why we’re embarking upon this effort, and what we hope to achieve as a result of it.
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My family has made a pledge to the new building, and we are excited to be a part of KJA’s Foundation for the Future Campaign. Please join me in investing in the future of Karaite Judaism in the United States. Please visit www.Karaites.org for more detailed information about the KJA’s goals and about how you can help to achieve them through making your own gift to the Foundation for the Future Campaign.