History of the Congregation

 
In November, 1989 a small group of Jews living in Madison founded Congregation Shaarei Shamayim. They had been attending High Holiday services at Gates of Heaven (Shaarei Shamayim in Hebrew) synagogue in James Madison Park and wished to create their own ongoing congregation. About thirty people attended the first meeting. Several current Shaarei Shamayim members participated in that meeting.
 
At its start, the community had no name. The members created unique services every time they met. While those days were full of creativity, it was a difficult process to sustain. Eventually, the group chose the name Shaarei Shamayim and decided to affiliate with the Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal movements. The affiliations lent some consistency to their worship.  In the early years, student rabbis travelled from Philadelphia once a month to serve the congregation. Highlights of that time included holding their first High Holy Day services at the First Unitarian Society, developing a machzor (High Holy Day prayer book) they created themselves and used until 2007; establishing a home for Madison’s gay and lesbian Jews as well as interfaith couples; and entering into an agreement that lasted until 2008 to share ritual space with Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society.
 
Over time the community grew. In 1996, the members hired their first resident rabbi, Brian Field, who served the congregation for six years. Rabbi Brian helped the congregation develop and was instrumental in the community purchasing its own Torah from U.S. military surplus. Many Shaarei Shamayim members were able to complete the last few letters of the Torah, which had never been finished while owned by the military. In those years community members also built a beautiful ark that is still used today.

The community’s second rabbi, Laurie Zimmerman, had been involved in Shaarei Shamayim while an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She helped create our Bet Sefer (Hebrew school) in 1995. She returned first as a student rabbi in 2002 and then as a resident rabbi in 2003 after completing her studies at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.

During Rabbi Laurie's tenure the congregation has almost doubled, and it has become a vibrant Jewish community in Madison. In 2008 we moved to the beautiful First Unitarian Society. Our school is growing and we celebrate several bnei mitzvah a year.  We are developing a variety of havurot (fellowship groups) that increase participation, leadership, and a sense of community within the congregation, and we continue to offer a diverse and interesting assortment of adult education classes and intergenerational programming.