After 19 months of uncertainty, Chattanooga's B'nai Zion charts future with new rabbi, building

Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Safety tape is seen surrounding B'nai Zion's building on McBrien Road on June 18, 2021. The congregation vacated the space on McBrien Road in November 2019 after concerns about the building's stability.
Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Safety tape is seen surrounding B'nai Zion's building on McBrien Road on June 18, 2021. The congregation vacated the space on McBrien Road in November 2019 after concerns about the building's stability.

By November 2019, the reality of the situation was clear.

"Thankfully we had a wonderful High Holy Day season in our sanctuary. However, as the old yiddish phrase says: Man plans and God laughs," the rabbi at the time wrote in the weekly newsletter. "After consultation with the structural engineers and in the interest of safety, the board of directors made the difficult decision to vacate the premises immediately."

With that, Chattanooga's 133-year-old B'nai Zion Congregation began cycling its weekly services to wherever they could be held - the local Jewish federation, the rabbi's home.

About four months later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Services went online. A few months after that, their rabbi took a new position in British Columbia.

Today, the perimeter of B'nai Zion's building on McBrien Road is sectioned off with an orange safety fence. Items to be moved or otherwise organized are stacked near an entrance. Caution tape hangs from railings in the sanctuary and, nearby, cracks along the walls are visible to the naked eye.

Being forced to leave the building was sad and demoralizing, members said, but there is hope the congregation will rebound stronger.

The next steps - termed as challenges, opportunities or transitions, depending on who is talking - begin in the coming days. A new rabbi will arrive. Services will reopen at another synagogue. A building committee is meeting to define a vision for the next physical space.

"We're very excited about our future and where we're going," said William Hillner, a former president of the synagogue and chairman of B'nai Zion's committee searching for alternative buildings. "I see us offering new programs, new opportunities for our members."


The congregation that became B'nai Zion received a state charter and began meeting in a rented space in 1888 on Carter Street, the same street where the first synagogue was built in 1902. The congregation moved to its Vine Street synagogue in 1931 and transferred the congregation's Torah scrolls to the McBrien Road building in 1975, according to the congregation's website.

As the building aged, and the congregation changed, the needs of the facility became too much. Heavy rain would cause leaks, for example. With each needed repair, the congregation would rally.

But the costs added up.

"We've had this large building, which has created a lot of demands and challenges because of the structural issues," Hillner said. "And those issues kept escalating and escalating and escalating until finally, we got to the point that we really had to look at leaving the building, which as much as we loved it, it was just too big, too costly and too unstable."

The congregation moved out in November 2019. The building was a symbol of how much B'nai Zion accomplished, which was why losing it was so gutting, Hillner said.

"It was the culmination of tremendous growth and belief in our future and support in the community," he said. "It's sad. It's definitely been sad."

The membership met at the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga or in the basement of then-Rabbi Susan Tendler's home. An area church let the congregation host its Hebrew school in unused space.

Scott Israel, president of the congregation's board, thanked community groups for being so willing to support B'nai Zion during its period of uncertainty.

"The Chattanooga community, the Jewish community and the church community has really tried to help BZ," Israel said.


After Tendler accepted a new position in Canada, the congregation worked with an interim rabbi while the search for a full-time faith leader began.

The congregation posted the position in late 2020, Hillner said. The application included information about B'nai Zion, the city of Chattanooga and the history and potential of the faith community.

Leadership at B'nai Zion hired Rabbi Sam Rotenberg, who was then an assistant rabbi at Sinai Temple, among the largest Conservative synagogues in the country. The California congregation consists of around 1,700 members and, accounting for below-ground levels, the L.A. synagogue is nine stories in total, Rotenberg said.

The rabbi, a 31-year-old father of three and native of Florida, said he was drawn to the Southeast to be closer to family. His wife, Rabbi Keilah Lebell, helps lead a congregation in Los Angeles as well.

Upending his life in California, moving a family across the country, is challenging, Rotenberg said. But faith is strengthened when not relying on the comfortable choices, he said.

"The choice to leave was not easy, in that respect," Rotenberg said. "On the other hand, for me, my passion really lies in smaller communities, and I really felt drawn to smaller Jewish communities."

Rotenberg visited Camp Ramah Darom in North Georgia multiple times as a camper and as an adult staff member. He said those experiences drew him to Southern expressions of Judaism.

"That mix of Southern hospitality with Jewish tradition was just like a magnet. I loved it," he said. "There's a kind of warmth in the Southern Jewish community, and in my limited experience in the South, that I am really looking forward to plugging myself into."

There is an importance to being connected to a religious institution in the South, in the Bible Belt, Rotenberg said. Jewish communities in the region are often smaller, too, so they have to rely on one another to build and maintain thriving religious communities.

"I love old things. I think that's part of being a Rabbi. The Torah is old. These traditions are old," Rotenberg said. "So the idea of being part of a community that started in the late 1800s, that has deep roots in the South, I'm excited to plug myself to be part of that story."

The new rabbi will start his work in July. He has met many in the congregation over Zoom. The next steps for B'nai Zion, which Rotenberg terms "transitions," will rely on building strong relationships - between the rabbi and the members, between the members and each other, between the members and God. Those steps are more important than any building, he said.

"To me, this is an opportunity to reinvent and those kinds of problems are very exciting to me. The idea of navigating this search for a new building, navigating reopening and what it means for B'nai Zion to grow and continue to thrive after COVID, after all this, those are issues I'm really excited to face," he said.


B'nai Zion congregation members wanted their new rabbi to begin before making firm plans about their new building.

Israel, the board president, said all options are on the table. A small building for a more intimate feeling. A larger building able to accommodate the large number of attendees who celebrate the faith's High Holy Days. Or they could renovate an old church.

"We are looking at everything that is going to make B'nai Zion succeed in the future, understanding our demographics and our financial needs," Israel said.

The congregation is looking to sell the old facility on McBrien Road. Earlier this month, a Chattanooga developer rezoned the nearly 5-acre property to become townhomes.

In July, B'nai Zion will resume in-person services at Mizpah Congregation, the Reform congregation downtown. The two communities agreed to a one-year deal to share space to give B'nai Zion time to decide on its building.

Israel said the congregation has been through a lot but he remains optimistic.

"We had to leave our building, we had COVID, we lost a wonderful rabbi and through B'nai Zion's membership and the leadership, we are poised to have a fantastic future," he said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.