About Our Congregation
Temple Hillel B'nai Torah (HBT) is a Jewish Reconstructionist congregation, based in the West Roxbury neighborhood of Boston, that is welcoming, egalitarian, multicultural, and inclusive. We are devoted to our core principles of worship, study, social justice and community.
HBT is a haimish community that is rooted in Jewish tradition and responsive to the world we live in. We actively engage our members in the creative process of bringing new perspectives to tradition and making tradition meaningful to contemporary lives.
History of HBT
Temple Hillel B'nai Torah's (HBT) beginnings date back to 1949, with the Parkway Jewish Women's Club. A year later, the Parkway Jewish Men's Association came into being. By 1955, the group formed Temple Beth Torah, a conservative synagogue with its own Hebrew School. With 300 Jewish families in West Roxbury, the congregation moved into the original building on Corey Street, engaged Rabbi Oscar Bookspan and Cantor Simon Erdman as spiritual leaders, added a new sanctuary, and flourished into the 1960s. In 1970, Temple Beth Hillel left its historic building in Mattapan and merged with Beth Torah to become Temple Hillel B'nai Torah. Many of the historic plaques, the Torah scrolls, and Torah reading table in the sanctuary are mementos of the Mattapan congregation.
While the temple reached its peak in the late 1970s, demographic trends in the City of Boston led to a decline in membership in the 1980s. Rabbi Bookspan retired in 1986 and was followed by Rabbi Eliot Somers who served the congregation for several years. During that time, a small group of young families created the West Roxbury Chavurah, which was invited to meet at HBT. The Chavurah welcomed in many younger families and established an annual retreat at Craigville Conference Center on the Cape.
In 1995, members of the Chavurah, who were up-and-coming temple leaders, joined together with the senior members of the temple to search for a rabbi to bring together the diverse membership of the congregation. Rabbi Barbara Penzner was invited to take on the mantle of leadership and has been our spiritual leader ever since. That same year the Chaverim School opened its doors as the first Hebrew School at HBT in ten years. The Chaverim School continues to grow, offering programming for students pre-K through high school and their parents.
Thanks to the help of consultants at CJP, the community worked together to draft a set of community principles that define us and direct our programming. We also overhauled our governance structure and created a fair-share dues structure to make membership accessible to all.
Through the years, HBT members have spent time examining and updating various policies through a Reconstructionist values-based decision-making process. In 1998, we established guidelines for including inter-faith families into our congregational life. In 1999, well before gay marriage was legalized in Massachusetts, we created a policy to be welcoming to the LGBT community and to open our sanctuary to same-sex weddings. We also revised our Kashrut (Jewish dietary rules) policy, re-envisioned our Shabbat morning service through the COSMOS (Committee On Shabbat Morning Services), and revisited our policy for holding funerals in our sanctuary.
In 2003, after two years of discussion, the congregation voted overwhelmingly to affiliate with the Reconstructionist movement. As HBT has grown, we sponsored two adult b’nai mitzvah groups, took a congregational trip to Israel in 2007, and led a group of parents and teens to New Orleans in 2009 to repair homes devastated by Hurricane Katrina. In 2013, the congregation revived the spring Shabbaton retreat on the Cape for our intergenerational community, with close to 100 members in attendance.
Many thanks to former member Sandra Serkess, who grew up in the temple and researched the congregation’s rich history, for her contributions to this page.