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Worcester Synagogues Seek New Rabbis

By Laura Porter

WORCESTER – Change is in the air in Worcester. Last June, Temples Emanuel and Sinai integrated to become a new Reform synagogue, Temple Emanuel Sinai. PaRDes, the pluralist community religious school, opened in the fall of 2012. Now both Congregation Beth Israel, the conservative synagogue in Worcester, and Temple Emanuel Sinai are in the midst of searching for new rabbis to take their respective pulpits in the summer of 2014. Rabbis Steve Schwarzman of BI and Matthew Berger of TES are both moving on.
Howard Borer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts, expresses his appreciation for “the work of Rabbis Berger and Schwarzman. During their tenure, they were very helpful in partnering with the Federation in creating PaRDes,” he says. He looks forward to “working with our two new rabbis, in in many collaborative ways, to enrich Jewish life in Worcester.”
At Temple Emanuel Sinai, “the integrated entity is simply looking to go in a new direction,” says George Pins. “We’re looking for a spiritual leader who, in collaboration with the temple lay leadership, can take us to the next step of our journey,” adds Merilee Freeman. Pins and Freeman are co-chairing the rabbinic search committee. The fifteen members of the committee “equally represent both of the [former] temples and all of the economic, age and social demographics; it’s a great working group of people,” says Pins.
After entering into placement with the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) in October, the committee has, to date, reviewed 23 resumes, conducted 14 telephone interviews and brought three candidates to Worcester for initial on-site interviews. Members are now following up on references for those candidates and considering visits to their home congregations; evaluation of additional resumes is ongoing.
The candidates represent a broad range of age, experience and demographics and come from all over the United States and beyond. “We’re switching from a transactional to a relational synagogue model,” says Pins, and the synagogue’s highest priority is to choose a rabbi “who can partner with the congregation and the community in building that model.”
Reflecting the message of writer Ron Wolfson, author of Relational Judaism, the relational approach embraces connection and community, going beyond the idea of the synagogue as a place where congregants only transact for specific needs, such as religious school and lifecycle events. Ideally, the new rabbi of Temple Emanuel Sinai will implement that new philosophy, embracing the existing congregation and then reaching out to encourage new affiliation from within the wider community.
In that context, committee members are evaluating not only each candidate’s professional qualifications but also their ability to connect. “We’re seeing how they answer our questions, how they relate to us,” says Freeman. “Can we talk to him or her? Do we feel warmth, could we go to this person if we had a problem?”
At Congregation Beth Israel, the search process is just getting underway in the advent of Rabbi Schwarzman’s decision to seek another position, says President Joel Baker. “We’re looking at it as an opportunity to find a spiritual leader to help the congregation grow into the next ten or fifteen years,” he says.
The search committee of 15, chaired by Joel Kaufman and Sara Jacobson, has been chosen to reflect the different constituencies within the synagogue. They began their work in December and have already reviewed fifteen resumes in two weeks, says Baker. “Last time, we began in March,” he says. “This time, we’re getting the full recruiting season in.”
Short telephone interviews will be followed by longer telephone interviews conducted by the entire committee. Select candidates will then be brought in for a weekend to conduct Shabbat services as well as a teaching or other program. A final decision will be made based on that process, which will probably not be wrapped up before the end of April or early May.
Given that there are now “more pulpit rabbis than pulpits to serve,” the current climate will allow BI to be “a little fussy finding who is right for us,” Baker says. “We want to find the perfect candidate for us, and hopefully the perfect candidate sees Worcester as the best option.”
Indeed, Central Massachusetts has much to offer any rabbi choosing to relocate to the area. “There is a robust Jewish community, a strong academic and intellectual community with at least ten colleges, and the Boston Jewish community an hour away,” says George Pins. “The temples are centrally located, and we have the Jewish Community Center as well as senior living.” Fundamentally, he says, “it’s a warm community with a rich history.”

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