Cantor Richard Rosenfield of Temple Beth-El, of which all Jewish students at HWS are members, and his wife Lise, were featured in an article in the Finger Lakes Times about their life together and the path that has led them to be leaders of Geneva’s Jewish community.
Both Rosenfields grew up not practicing Judaism. “Although that’s his heritage, he was not particularly observant, and Lise was raised as a Calvinist in her native Switzerland…Although their backgrounds were worlds apart, their personal quests for spiritual identity followed similar paths.”
Temple Beth-El and the Colleges do many things together. Every Jewish HWS student is a member of the congregation, and welcome to all services. The Temple and Colleges also come together for films, have a Holocaust seminar and observe a second night Passover seder.
Cantor Rosenfield is commissioner of the Geneva Human Rights Commission; volunteers with Habitat for Humanity as a planning committee member for Geneva Builds and family liaison; is treasurer and past president of the Geneva Area Interfaith Council; is a board member of the Campus Ministries Advisory Board of Keuka College and religious service leader for the New York State Developmental Disabilities Services Office.
The full text of the article follows.
Finger Lakes Times
Quest for spiritual identity leads to temple
‘Born-again Jew’ and ‘Jew by choice’ have been leading Geneva community since 1994
Rick Kollins • January 30, 2009
GENEVA – When Cantor Richard Rosenfield of Temple Beth-El and his wife, Lise, met as students at State University at Buffalo 40 years ago, neither was a practicing Jew.
Now they are the face of Geneva’s Jewish community. Although their backgrounds were worlds apart, their personal quests for spiritual identity followed similar paths.
Richard, born in Pittsburgh and raised in the Bronx, said there were no religious traditions in his home until he started religious school around age 10 and began to learn about Judaism.
“We always had a Christmas tree until I learned that Jews shouldn’t have Christmas trees, and said ‘no’ to my parents,” he recalled. “Then we began to light Hanukkah candles, although I don’t remember if there was a time when we did both.”
He didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah, the traditional ceremony when a Jewish boy takes on the religious responsibility of an adult at age 13, but he did continue his religious education until his confirmation at age 15.
“For my confirmation speech, I talked about Jewish music, although I’m not sure why I picked that topic,” he said, indicating the irony that he would become a cantor many years later.
“Perhaps it was the influence of my piano teacher, Herman Berlinski, who was very well known and had a doctorate in sacred music.” Rosenfield’s first career choice was science, and he earned a Ph.D. in biophysical science from State University at Buffalo and worked for nine years as a post-doctoral associate at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas.
It was there, deep in the heart of Texas, that he discovered his Judaism.
“Lise and I had agreed to raise our children as Jews, and when our daughter Anna was 4 years old, Lise said ‘you’re the Jew in the family, so do something about it,'” Rosenfield recalled.
So he volunteered to teach the children Jewish songs since the small congregation had no rabbi or cantor.
“When I started, I knew next to no Hebrew, but over several years I became more and more involved, and when the synagogue got a rabbi I was asked to form an adult choir,” he said. “Meanwhile, I was becoming more and more frustrated with my scientific work as it wasn’t giving me the satisfaction I wanted.”
When Rosenfield attended a four-day institute on sacred music in New York in June 1987, he knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He also recognized that he did not have a clear religious identity, and was “in awe” of people who spoke Hebrew and knew all about their Jewish culture and traditions.
“I noticed that those who had a sense of who they were as Jews also had a sense of who they were as people,’ he said. “I needed that sense of direction.”
So, at age 42, Rosenfield gave up science and enrolled at Hebrew Union College in New York, graduating as an ordained cantor with a master’s degree in sacred music in 1994.
Meanwhile Lise Rosenfield- born Claire Lise Jeanneraud in Geneva, Switzerland – had an even more challenging route to Judaism.
Although the Rosenfields were married in a Jewish ceremony in 1971, she said she had no plans at the time to convert.
“I lost interest in Christianity when I came to this country, but I still had the nagging problem of who Jesus was for me, and for a long time I could not answer that question,” she said. “But as our family grew (son David was born two years after Anna) and the kids learned more about
Judaism, I realized that I really liked the Jewish way of life.”
Gradually, Lise also became involved in the synagogue, and after a few years the question that had nagged her for so long disappeared.
In 1985, 14 years into her marriage, Lise converted to Judaism.
“The Israeli experience was so essential for us as we met Jews from every part of the world, and walked in the places of the Bible,” Richard said.
While he concentrated on his studies, Lise learned to read and speak Hebrew and studied the Torah, the five Books of Moses that are the heart of Jewish history and beliefs.
“You make yourself a Jew by studying Torah, but you can never do enough,” Lise said. “The Jewish religion is the basis of modern ethics, and I am always striving to be a better Jew and a better person.”
Her husband is only partly joking when he calls himself a “born-again Jew” and Lise a “Jew by choice.”
The Rosenfields came to Geneva in 1994, and while Richard has served as spiritual and educational leader of Temple Beth-El, Lise has taken on several contract positions at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station while helping her husband in his work.
“My role at the Temple is self-defined, and I do what is needed,” Lise said, citing cooking, baking and editing the synagogue newsletter among her activities. She also often leads the Torah reading during Sabbath services.
Richard is actively involved in the Geneva Area Interfaith Council and the Geneva Human Rights Commission, and he applauds Geneva for the social agencies established to help people in need.
“Not many small cities have agencies like the Food Pantry and Center for Concern,” he said.
Temple Beth-El – founded in 1947 – is an affiliate of the Union of Reform Judaism and has traditionally had either a rabbi or a cantor, but never both at the same time. The last rabbi was Barbara Bortz, who served from 1992-94.
The temple serves 50 to 60 families from across the Finger Lakes region.