Faith, culture endure; growing Jewish community in Southern Utah

ST. GEORGE – A small, yet determined group of locals have spent the last 25 years finding ways to preserve and share the faith and culture they treasure. They are the Beit Chaverim Jewish Congregation of Southern Utah, and their story is one of unwavering dedication.

The congregation was founded by New Jersey native Rise Bausch, who moved to Southern Utah in 1987. From a devout Jewish background, Bausch wanted to continue the teachings and honor the principles of her heritage, as well as share the culture and religion with other Jews.

Although the area’s Jewish population was virtually nonexistent, Bausch reached out to a few locals and started to see results.

“I wanted the Jewish religion and customs around me,” she said. “There has to be a presence of Judaism in the community. It’s important.”

It was slow going over the next few years as Bausch attempted to organize anything substantial. Some lost interest, others moved; the group grew, shrank and grew again. She once led Shabbat services on a cold winter’s evening at the Snow Canyon Overlook with only three other people in attendance.

But her persistence began paying off when the Beit Chaverim Jewish Congregation of Southern Utah was officially established in the mid-1990s. The arrival of secretary Ellen Nathan, who took charge of community outreach, member organization and coordination of a board of directors, was a huge benefit.

Though still a small congregation of about 30 families, they continue to grow and have passed many milestones over the last two decades.

Beit Chaverim are members of the St. George Area Chamber of Commerce, affiliated with the worldwide Jewish Reform movement; and, as part of the St. George Interfaith Council, Beit Chaverim participate in the multi-congregational events “Prayer Over the City” on New Year’s and “Stations of the Cross” for Easter each year. They have partnered with Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church in St. George since 2007 for a venue to hold worship. Additionally, congregation members have donated a Torah and built the ark in which it is kept, enhancing Shabbat services.

Their goal is to establish a presence in Southern Utah as an opportunity for Jews from all walks of life to gather and worship.

“We are a part of this group because we want to have some Jewish culture in our lives,” Nathan said. “By having services and get-togethers, it helps us remember who we are and what we’re about.”

“I welcome religious organizations in the community to practice their beliefs. The Jewish (congregation) is small but growing,” St. George Mayor Dan McArthur said. “It’s great to have them in the community. Faith-based groups make good citizens.”

A Jewish Reform congregation, Beit Chaverim are nonkosher and perform most services in English, rather than Hebrew. The group celebrates all Jewish holidays with a potluck party, including the upcoming Hanukkah on Nov. 28.

Shabbat services are held at 7 p.m. the second Friday of every month at the Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church, 611 North 2450 East in St. George. Services are conducted by three members of the congregation, along with the reading of the Torah by another member and accompanying discussion. Honors are given to those who open and close the ark and carry the Torah around the room. An Oneg follows the services, allowing all who attend to socialize.

A religious and cultural minority in the area, Bausch, Nathan and their fellow Jews strive to encourage continuing growth of the congregation.

“A lot of people still don’t know we’re here,” Nathan said. “We’re a pretty well-kept secret, but I really would love to see us grow and get more community involvement.”

“We are moving forward and we’re always hoping to find new members,” Bausch said. “There are more Jews in town. We look forward to meeting them.”

To learn more about or become involved with the congregation, contact Ellen Nathan at 435-652-9776.

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