WORCESTER – On July 25, Congregation Beth Israel welcomed Rabbi Aviva Fellman as she celebrated her first Shabbat in Worcester. Rabbi Fellman, who most recently served as the associate rabbi and director of Congregational Educational and Jewish Learning at the Oceanside Jewish Center in Oceanside, New York, was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary and also holds a master’s degree from Machon Schechter in Jerusalem.
“Our community will be enriched by the presence of Rabbi Fellman,” says Howard Borer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts. “She brings a youthful exuberance to the position that is refreshing. I have had the opportunity to talk with her about the congregation and community, and I am impressed by her and her enthusiasm.”
The Jewish community in Central Massachusetts is in the midst of transition, with the recent integration of Temples Sinai and Emanuel into Temple Emanuel Sinai, relatively new clergy in three synagogues, and the community religious school starting only its third year.
In that context, says Borer, “It is worth noting that with the hiring of Rabbi Fellman at Beth Israel and Rabbi Valerie Cohen at Temple Emanuel Sinai, they now join Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz at Congregation B’nai Shalom as the three full-time rabbis in our community, all of whom are women.”
Aviva Fellman’s avocation emerged early, when she was only eight years old.
“When I was in the third grade,” she recalls, “the rabbi at my shul changed. It went from a High Church feeling to a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere. They took the little velvet chords on the pews off. And I was invited to lead services on the bimah.”
That experience changed everything for her.
“I learned that my presence in synagogue was welcomed and valued,” she says. “Instead of my parents waking me up to go to synagogue, I woke my parents up to go to synagogue.”
Born in Boston, she grew up in Philadelphia but always wanted to return to New England. Though she almost came to Clark University in Worcester, the prospect of in-state tuition took her instead to the University of Pittsburgh, and from there to rabbinical school.
While at the JTS, notes her biography on the Beth Israel website, she barely stood still. She “taught Hebrew School at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism, completed a chaplaincy unit in Seattle, worked at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, was an EMT and ambulance driver for the Park Slope (Brooklyn) Volunteer Ambulance Corps, became a certified SCUBA diver, and for three years led High Holiday services at Anshei Chesed in Cape Cod.”
Along the way, she also lived for two years in Israel, where she studied, interned in Masorti communities and met her husband, Ari Fellman, an electrical engineer who spent six years as an engineer in the IDF. They married in Jerusalem and now have two small children, Hadar and Idan, ages 2½ and 1½.
From the start, the rabbinic search committee at Beth Israel found Rabbi Fellman vibrant and engaging.
She is “very bright and energetic and enthusiastic,” says Sara Jacobson, who, with Joel Kaufman, co-chaired the committee. “She has a background in running a Hebrew school and in education for all ages. We have an intergenerational congregation, and she was able to connect beautifully with people of all ages.”
Following the search process prescribed by the Rabbinic Assembly, the committee began the search by posting a congregational questionnaire that detailed the congregation’s needs and the qualities they were looking for in a new rabbi.
They received 18 resumes, and a small group of committee members conducted 12 initial telephone interviews with candidates. From there, four rabbis were invited to participate in Skype interviews with the full committee. Three came to Worcester for “a fully packed visit,” says Jacobson.
Those visits included leading a Shabbat service, giving a D’var Torah, leading Torah study, and enjoying a meal and a question and answer period with the congregation. Candidates met with the leadership of Pardes, the community religious school, and visited the MetroWest Jewish Day School as well. While they were in Worcester, they stayed as guests in congregants’ homes.
“The committee provided many different venues for as many congregants as possible to see the rabbis. That was important to us,” says Jacobson.
After the visits concluded, the congregation was asked to provide feedback through a survey, and the committee took those responses into account in its deliberations.
“We felt we had really great choices,” Jacobson says. One candidate withdrew, and “we decided that we would be really pleased if Rabbi Fellman would be our next rabbi.”
The feeling was mutual.
“During my interview, I found BI to be one of the warmest and most welcoming communities I’d ever been party to,” says Rabbi Fellman. “I had a sense of appreciation and being valued for everything I can bring.”
Moreover, she goes on to elaborate, “They want a rabbi; they don’t need a rabbi. They don’t need me because they need a service leader or because they need sermons, but because they want a rabbi. It’s a very different feel. It’s a place where I can continue to grow and learn.”
Her first task is getting to know the members of her new congregation as well as the greater community.
One of her challenges is that she has “overlapping congregations,” with some members away for the summer and others away in the winter. That said, “I have a strong feeling that the people who choose to join a synagogue are special and it’s worth getting to know them,” she says. “Too often, regular members or even newcomers tend to get ignored. There is something special about people who are choosing to affiliate.”
Through meet-and-greets as well as programming geared toward specific groups such as young adults or young professionals, she hopes to make the rounds both formally and informally.
“I have roles and goals for different groups,” she says.
At her previous congregation of 350 families, “I had half the congregation for a meal in the two-and-a-half years I was there,” she says, noting that she’s the type of rabbi who will offer a spontaneous invitation to “meet us on the playground for ice cream sandwiches.”
Rabbi Fellman and her husband are enjoying Worcester’s slower pace, so different from Long Island.
“We joined the JCC and got library cards on the same day,” she says. “We’ve gone blueberry picking and to concerts at Newton Square. Ari ran with the double stroller in the neighborhood. Everything is close by, accessible, family-oriented.”
She wants to encourage a similar family atmosphere at Beth Israel, and has already put a bin of toys in the chapel, giving an immediate sign that children are welcome.
“My daughter has already figured out how to move the stepstool next to the bimah so she can help lead services,” she laughs.