Retired rabbi staying busy

After working at his old summer camp, he’s now taking a Torah to Denmark

The seeds of Allen Bennett’s career were planted in his synagogue kindergarten class when he used to “play rabbi.” (Yes, he really did.)

However, his post-career path may have been paved in 1957 at Camp Nebagamon for Boys, where he first met folks from Denmark.

Rabbi Allen Bennett

As a camper and then a counselor at the private camp in Wisconsin’s Northwoods, he became friendly with some Danes who came over to teach orienteering. And they remained friends over the years.

Flash forward more than five decades: Last year, following his retirement as rabbi at Temple Israel in Alameda, Bennett spent 21⁄2 months volunteering at the only Progressive (Reform) synagogue in Denmark.

And now, after the High Holy Days, he’ll return to Copenhagen with a special gift: a Torah from Temple Israel.

“It’s a Torah that we think will get better use in Denmark,” said Rabbi Barnett Brickner, who followed Bennett as the spiritual leader of the Reform synagogue in Alameda. He said the Torah has become an “extra” one that Temple Israel rarely uses. “We’re excited to be part of this project and thrilled to be able to do this. It brings the Jewish world closer together.”

The Torah itself has an interesting history. When Congregation Ahavat Shalom in San Francisco closed its doors 20 years ago, Bennett, then and now a San Francisco resident, became the Torah’s custodian. He brought it with him to Temple Israel.

While transporting a Torah across the Bay Bridge requires a roomy back seat, taking one to Copenhagen is another matter.

The Torah’s accessories — including the rollers, crown, finials, mantel, pointer and breastplate — have been packed and shipped, while the Torah itself is now on a single temporary roller. When he boards the plane, Bennett will carry the well-wrapped scroll in his duffel, placing it in the overhead compartment.

“If anything went as baggage, it would be me,” he joked during a Skype interview from Camp Nebagamon.

Yes, this summer, Bennett, at age 67, returned to northwest Wisconsin — to the camp of his youth — where he was a camper from 1957 to 1962 and a staff member from 1963 to 1967 and 1969 to 1970.

Rabbi Allen Bennett at Temple Israel in 2010. The black-covered Torah in the ark is the one bound for Denmark.

“Even if I have said it before, I am glad to say it again: the place, the people, the ethos, the values, the gestalt [at Camp Nebagamon] have always been, and remain to this day, the most important of my life, bar none,” Bennett wrote on Facebook this summer.

He spent eight weeks there, working as a quartermaster. His main job was ensuring that every group that left camp to go on a biking, canoeing or hiking trip left with all the proper provisions.

“This, more than any other place, is my ‘holy land,’ ” he wrote on Facebook. “It has been 43 years, and I could not be happier to be back.”

Since retiring from the bimah 16 months ago, Bennett also has spent time as a volunteer at Shir Hatzafon, the synagogue in Copenhagen, which translates to “song of the North.” The congregation, which has 140 family members, has few funds, no building and no full-time rabbi. Bennett, a detail-oriented person, has helped implement a bit of organizational structure.

When he first explored volunteering there, the leaders wanted to move quickly and asked Bennett what they should do first: hire a rabbi or purchase a building. “First you should get a bank account,” he told them. They didn’t have the fundraising mechanism to afford either. Nor did they have a membership list.

As a volunteer, Bennett took an administrative role, setting up a management database and laying the groundwork for a board, committees and volunteer recruitment. The latter is a challenge.

“The American idea of volunteerism is not something that happens in well-developed socialist countries,” he said. “Ten percent of the members do 90 percent of the work.”

Fundraising is another challenge. Although Denmark’s Orthodox establishment receives government funding, the Progressive congregation does not. Denmark’s 6,400 Jews represent only .12 percent of the population, according to 2012 records. Most live in Copenhagen, and only about half are affiliated.

In addition to Denmark, Bennett also has spent 10 weeks in Israel since his retirement, volunteering for organizations promoting progressive causes.

Among them are Hiddush, an Israeli organization that lobbies for religious diversity and equality, and Rabbis for Human Rights. During a visit to the West Bank on behalf of Rabbis for Human Rights, he helped to plant olive trees, but most of his work has been organizing behind the scenes.

This summer, Bennett applauded the Supreme Court’s rulings on Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act. Yet Bennett, cited by the New York Times and other publications in 1978 as the first openly gay rabbi in the country, also expressed some concerns about the rulings on Facebook.

“As much as I was thrilled, excited, and delighted that the arc of justice seems to be bending in the right direction, at least in the case of same-gender marriage,” he wrote, “I hope that the changed situation brought about by the Supreme Court rulings will not mean that people will rush to marry simply because they can.” n

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].