By Laura Porter
On Sunday morning, June 7, Congregation Beth Israel will celebrate the installation of Rabbi Aviva Fellman.Congregants and guests will gather at 10 a.m. in the Glick Sanctuary for a short service followed by brunch.
The occasion marks not only Rabbi Fellman’s official installation but also the end of her first year in Worcester. It has been a year defined by her warmth, energy and ability to meet congregants wherever they are, both literally and figuratively.
“She’s been a breath of fresh air,” says Debbie Fins, president of the congregation. “She’s exciting, and she has a million ideas. It’s hard to keep up with her.”
For the rabbi, coming to Worcester has been a matter of finding herself exactly where she wants to be.
“I really feel honored and privileged and so lucky to be the rabbi of a congregation that I want to join,” she says. “I don’t know a better way to describe the love, the support, the commitment of the community, and especially of the members of Beth Israel. If we were to have come to Worcester for any other reason, this would have been the community that we would have chosen. How much luckier I am to get to be their rabbi!”
Aviva Fellman was born in Boston, grew up outside of Philadelphia and graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in Religious Studies. After receiving her master’s in Talmud and Jewish Law from Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, she was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in NYC in 2012.
She met and married her husband, Ari, an electrical engineer, in Jerusalem, and they have two small children, Hadar and Idan.
Rabbi Fellman previously served as Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational and Jewish Learning at the Oceanside Jewish Center on Long Island. Her colleague and senior rabbi at Oceanside, Rabbi Mark Greenspan, will install her at Beth Israel and serve as the guest speaker at the installation.
In addition, says Liz Baker, who, with her husband, Joel, as well as Karolyn and Manouch Darvish, is a co-chair of the installation committee, “the arms of the community” will speak briefly: the presidents of Brotherhood, Sisterhood, and USY as well as the chair of the board of trustees. Debbie Fins, and of course, Rabbi Fellman herself, will also speak.
In addition to friends, family and colleagues, the rabbi’s parents, Rabbi Jonathan and Ellie Kremer, will be there. Rabbi Kremer, a graphic artist and musician, “got the bug” when his daughter was in rabbinical school, says Liz Baker, and followed her to the JTS. He is now rabbi at Congregation Beth Judah in Ventnor, New Jersey. The short but happy celebration will give BI congregants an opportunity to celebrate their new rabbi and all that she has done in the past year.
“She has energized the community, both internally and externally,” says Fins.
Indeed, Fins lists example after example of the new rabbi’s immersion in virtually every facet of the BI community, from her interactions with parents with young children to the congregation’s youth to those experiencing the difficulties of death and disease.
“She’s very involved in relational Judaism in her efforts,” says Fins. “She’s engaged in all of the different ways that we can get people more involved.”
From the moment of her arrival in late July 2014, Rabbi Fellman has made it a practice to reach out to get to know people, noticing when someone has been absent from shul or inviting a new visitor back to her home after services. In addition to the typical pastoral outreach that is a key part of any rabbinate, she is just as likely to show up at the door of a bereaved or ill congregant with soup and homemade challah in hand (she bakes her own every week, in big batches). She calls members on a regular basis to say hello, to check in and to follow up with homebound members.
From the bimah, she has recharged weekly services, raising attendance to 80-100 on Shabbat mornings, and reinvigorated High Holiday services. At the High Holidays, says Debbie Fins, “she did amazing things. She doesn’t believe you have to read every page. At Rosh Hashanah, she pulled out the themes and did five pages instead of 20; services ended before 1 p.m. It was shocking!”
During the Al Chet on Yom Kippur, continues Fins, the rabbi read messages out loud from the website www.atonement.com in conjunction with the prayer, giving voice to real life examples of atonement. At Purim, Rabbi Fellman gathered congregants together to write little skits.
“The place was packed,” recalls Fins. “We ran out of groggers. People had to use grogger apps on their phones.”
The rabbi is deeply committed to the morning minyan, creating a Kaddish prayer for it and coming by the synagogue every morning to see if she is needed – on the way to taking her children to daycare at the JCC.
An integral part of her approach is “trying to change the image of BI that you have to practice at a certain level to be a member,” says Fins. To do so, it is necessary to strike a balance, supporting those who practice at every level.
“It’s meeting people wherever they are,” says Fins.
As she did in her former congregation, the rabbi has opened her home to the synagogue community and beyond. She and her husband regularly invite as many as 20 people at a time for Shabbat as well as for yom tovim. They have hosted hamentaschen baking, a Sukkah reception for the Board of Trustees, the YAD group, and a USY Shabbat dinner.
Connecting with young people has been a particular focus. For the USY group, she has introduced a program called “Hot Topics.” Teenagers meet every month, at her home, to discuss issues of concern, including tattooing and piercing, social media, and the death penalty.
Before Purim, she challenged the group to raise money for tikkun olam, and in return she dyed her hair. “The kids got to choose colors from a range,” says Fins. “They raised $250.”
In addition, Rabbi Fellman has started a Junior Book Club as part of the congregation’s thrice-annual Shabbat in Shul. They have read All-in-the-Kind Family and, more recently, How Mirka Got Her Sword. For the latter, the rabbi contacted the author, Barry Deutsch, setting up a Skype session in her office at the end of a ParDeS session by prior agreement with ParDeS director, Talia Mugg.
In terms of ParDeS, Rabbi Fellman has been integral in making sure that Beth Israel’s voice is heard in the community religious school.
“She wants her finger on the pulse of the community,” says Debbie Fins. “She wants to understand the politics behind it. She brings a genuineness to her interactions with people, and she is trying to do things with a certain spark. And she doesn’t hesitate to tell it like it is.”
Part of the rabbi’s community outreach has been teaching a class at Eisenberg Assisted Living (repeated at BI), giving a benediction at a meeting of the Worcester City Council, and interacting frequently with clergy of all denominations across the city.
She is currently working on a potential parenting program through the JCC and Jewish Family and Children Services (JF and CS) and planning a course at the Worcester Institute for Senior Education at Assumption College (WISE).
In the spring, she traveled to Florida for the annual Jewish Healthcare Center Worcester reunion. There, she met with Rabbi Baruch Goldstein, the beloved former rabbi of BI, and hosted a separate Tu b’Shevat brunch at a deli for BI members.
“It’s a big deal when Rabbi Goldstein okays a new rabbi,” says Debbie Fins.
A recent Sunday in May reflects the breadth of Rabbi Fellman’s rabbinate and community involvement. After conducting a funeral at Beth Israel first thing in the morning, she took part in Temple Emanuel Sinai’s Torah Trek, pushing her children in their jogging stroller from the integrated congregation’s May Street to Salisbury Street campuses. She then participated in the installation of a pastor at a Lutheran church in Worcester.
“And,” says Liz Baker, “she was at morning minyan at 7 a.m.” the next day.
Oh, and in her spare time? The Fellmans are currently hosting this year’s Young Emissary to the Central Massachusetts area.
Though there is no charge for brunch after the installation, “we’re hoping people will have an opportunity to give a gift,” says Baker. The response card included with the invitation lists six different categories for contributions, each designed with Rabbi Fellman in mind.
With options from Ruach to MVP (Most Valuable Pray-ers), Baker notes that the installation committee hopes “one of those categories will grab someone and we’ll have money come in. We’re thinking 200 people will come, but we might have more. She is so well liked. If people are in town, they will come.”
As Rabbi Fellman looks ahead, she is excited to see what the future holds but also well aware that “I’m one person and the only full-time Jewish staff member.” She is thrilled to have completed her first conversion at Beth Israel with a member whose first aliyah will be on the Shabbat before her installation.
In an ideal world, she says, she would love to see the volunteer base increase.
“People feel so strongly connected to the Beth Israel and Worcester communities, it would be nice to see them give back in whatever way they can.”
As for right now?
“I want to continue to see people smile then they come into the building and to hear how much they want to be here.”