Huntsville’s Etz Chayim celebrating 50th anniversary

In 1962, eight families that wanted a more traditional approach than what was offered at Huntsville’s Temple B’nai Sholom started Etz Chayim, a Conservative congregation.
The now 65-family congregation will celebrate its 50th anniversary the weekend of Jan. 18 with several events.

On Jan. 18, the 8 p.m. service will be led by Rabbi Brian Glusman. Glusman now lives in Atlanta and in the last decade was rabbi at Birmingham’s Temple Beth-El, but he grew up at Etz Chayim. His father, Fred Glusman, was one of the congregation’s founders.

Shabbat morning services will be at 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 19, with a luncheon to follow. That night there will be a wine and cheese family Havdalah, starting at 7:30 p.m.

The anniversary gala dinner will be Jan. 20 at 6 p.m., at the Doubletree in Huntsville. The dinner, which is $50 per person, will include a video presentation, “A Look Back.” Rooms for out of town guests are available at the Doubletree for $99.

Etz Chayim President Gary Hall said “we are looking forward to many members, new and old, to come and spend the weekend with us.”

The early 1960s was a time of huge growth in Huntsville. Until then, the community had remained rather small, numbering only 100 in 1937. With the location of Redstone Arsenal in the area in 1940, followed in 1960 by the Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville’s population grew ten-fold in three decades. The Jewish community saw an influx of scientists and engineers, many of whom were accustomed to a more traditional approach than what B’nai Sholom offered.

Not that B’nai Sholom wasn’t assisted by the influx — in 1963 the Reform congregation hired its first full-time rabbi in 50 years, expanded its building and still had to start holding High Holiday services at Redstone Arsenal because of a lack of space. Overall, the Huntsville Jewish community now numbers about 750.

Etz Chayim’s original members started meeting in a classroom in 1962, then rented space in other locations, including Scottish Rite on Bob Wallace Avenue. Starting in 1965 the congregation rented a house on Whitesburg Drive until they bought a small former church at its current location on Bailey Cove Road in 1969. That building was torn down in 1996 to make way for a larger sanctuary and social hall, and during the construction services were held at Hope Presbyterian Church.

A plaque over the sanctuary door shows how the Huntsville community has embraced Etz Chayim. The house on Whitesburg had a large hole that needed to be covered, so “the original Rocket City redneck,” Irv Sainker, made a brass plaque to cover it.

He went to the NASA scrap yard to find a piece of wood for mounting it, and was asked by an employee why he needed it. When Sainker said it was for a synagogue, the employee didn’t know what that word was, so Sainker explained it as a “Jewish church.” The employee told him to leave the wood and pick it up the end of the week.

When Sainker returned, the employee had cut the wood, beveled the edges, sanded and stained it, and mounted the brass plaque. It remains at Etz Chayim as a symbol of community and the kindness of strangers.

The congregation has never had a full-time rabbi, relying mostly on students from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Michelle Lapidus said “Our members just step up when needed, whether it is teaching a child Hebrew, leading services, and preparing matzah ball soup for the sick. That is just what we do.”

The congregation’s students attend NaChAS, the North Alabama Community Hebraic School, a joint venture with B’nai Sholom. Last year, Etz Chayim students also started taking online Hebrew classes from Behrman House.