Congregation Milestones

Rabbi Chaya Bender officially installed

BenderWhile Rabbi CHAYA BENDER joined the Bnai Israel Congregation years ago, she finally received her official welcome to the organization this month with a celebration of her installation and a sanctuary dedication for the congregation’s renovated sanctuary which had damages that were worsened during Hurricane Florence.

Since moving to Wilmington in 2020, Bender has found her footing and what she refers to as her “home” at Bnai Israel Congregation. But it didn’t come easy. She had to start a job at the onset of a pandemic. In a position that both requires and builds upon personal connections, bonding with a new congregation during Covid was not going to happen in a traditional way.

“It was a unique challenge to begin a job during the height of the pandemic and have to balance technology challenges with trying to make deep, personal relationships with people through a screen.” Technology—the good and the bad of it—proved to be a lifesaver.

“My entire congregation fit on my zoom screen,” Bender says. “We zoomed everything from prayer services, to classes, to baby namings, to funerals.” Luckily, she doesn’t rely wholly on a screen anymore and experiences her congregation now in “3D”.

Not letting the pandemic stop her, Rabbi Bender forged ahead with one of her missions, which included expanding community outreach programs. She has reinvigorated synagogue offerings for all ages and has cultivated intergenerational community building. Tot Shabbat programming for young families has been introduced, the religious school rebuilt, and she has brought in world-class visiting scholars and musicians for adult education.

One of the shining moments of her time, besides program building, has been witnessing the renovation of Bnai’s sanctuary. Like Rabbi Bender’s challenging start, the sanctuary was badly in need of a renovation and had to be navigated through its fair share of challenges. After being hit by a bad rainstorm and then further destroyed by Hurricane Florence, a new sanctuary now stands in its place. Bender is grateful and appreciative of all the hard work admitting “it was no small feat, with an all-hands-on-deck approach.”


New sanctuary

PAM SENDER, chair of the sanctuary renovation committee, acknowledges the challenges faced. “We had eight Jewish members on the committee, or about 152 different opinions,” she says jokingly. “We really had our work cut out for us.”

Bender has fifteen years’ experience in Jewish education and is passionate about helping individuals chart their unique Jewish path. She is proud to be a part of the local Jewish community. As the second woman rabbi in the conservative congregation’s 122-year history, she is certainly making her mark. Representing the LGBTQ community, she is committed to fostering inclusivity and equity and was part of the inaugural cohort of Rimonim for Rabbis, a collaborative effort of The Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism to examine interfaith inclusion within Conservative Synagogues.

A combined ceremony was held honoring both of the journeys—Bender’s official installation and a new sanctuary. Due to the pandemic, Rabbi Bender’s installation ceremony was delayed. The event incorporated three important milestones: a celebration, installation, and dedication. “It was the reunion we have been looking forward to and hoping and praying for the past two years,” Bender says. “It felt as much like a cumulation of how far we have come as a fresh start.”

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Categories: Women to Watch