By Stacey Dresner
LONGMEADOW – For seven years Rabbi Eytan Yammer led Congregation Knesseth Israel in Birmingham, Alabama.
He describes Mountain Brook, Ala., the area where the Orthodox shul is located, as “99.6 percent white, and I joke that the rest of them came to our shul.”
The congregation, whose members included mostly those whose families had been in the area for four generations and those who attend or work at the local university, welcomed South American Jews, Mexican-American Jews, a Japanese-Jewish woman and several African-American Jews.
“It was so diverse. It was really awesome,” says Yammer.
But now he and his wife Marisa, who served as director of Jewish Studies at the JCC Preschool in Birmingham, and their three young sons have left the Deep South for New England. Last month he became the rabbi at Congregation B’nai Torah in Longmeadow. He succeeds Rabbi Max Davis, who left B’nai Torah for Darchei Noam in St. Louis.
“Overall we felt he would be a great fit because of his extensive Modern Orthodox Judaic background and his experience heading up, developing, and making great progress in his former Shul in Birmingham, Ala. for seven years,” said Bob Kushner, co-president of B’nai Torah. “His experience coupled with his wife’s working closely with the synagogue community, we felt would be an excellent contribution and a wonderful fit for our congregation.”
Rabbi Yammer grew up in West Caldwell, N.J., with his mother, a Hebrew School teacher and his father, a psychologist.
When he was growing up, Yammer’s mother taught Hebrew school at a Conservative synagogue.
“We were an Orthodox family and for me I think that was a really important experience,” he says, “I think it helped shape my sense of Jewish peoplehood in a way that, if I had grown up only in an Orthodox community where everybody was like me, it would have been different.”
Yammer says he never considered being a rabbi growing up.
While at Yeshiva during a gap year in Israel, he asked his rabbi there, “What should I do? I really want to go to the Army but I am here in Yeshiva.’ He said, ‘Well, you should stay in yeshiva, then go to the army and serve as a military chaplain.’ I said, ‘You’re nuts!’ I will never be a rabbi. That’s not me!’”
After serving in the IDF, Yammer returned to the U.S. to study mathematics and marine biology at Rutgers, where he met fellow student and future wife, Marisa.
After graduating from Rutgers he became a professional paramedic.
Yammer was one of the EMTs that came to the aid of first responders during 9/11. He spent a week at Ground Zero.
“I was on the pile for a while, until my boots melted,” he said. He then helped administer oxygen and remove smoke and debris from the eyes of the firefighters and other first responders. Because he – and other workers at the site – were not provided with masks, he now has permanent airway damage.
I have sinusitis and a constant cough for the past 16 years….but I am blessed…I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
After their first year of marriage, Eytan and Marisa took jobs as youth directors for the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center in Livingston, N.J.
“It started with me thinking, ‘Okay, Marisa will be the front woman and I will do behind the scenes stuff and we will figure it out. I ended up running two minyanim a week…and developing relationships with the kids and their families and also having them come to me with some serious life issues and me mostly not know what the heck I was doing but trying my best to get it right.”
Still a paramedic, he decided to change his focus. “I loved being a paramedic. And I was really good at it, but I thought maybe I would find a way to be a volunteer somewhere at some point. The more engaged I became with building community and being involved in growing Judaism within individuals, I realized that was something I could never give up,” he said.
He began attending Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, N.Y., where he sat next to Rabbi Max Davis – “A good friend and a deeply kind soul.”
For a year while in rabbinical school, Eytan served as youth director at a synagogue in White Plains, N.Y. Between his third and fourth year of rabbinical school he was invited by Knesseth Israel in Birmingham – which was between rabbis – to serve during Pesach.
They offered Rabbi Yammer a job, but he said no because he had another year at rabbinical school. But the synagogue and administration of Chovrei Torah worked it out so that he could take the job and still attend his last year of rabbinical school. He was in New York Monday through Wednesday, then Wednesday night through Sunday he was in Alabama. He Skyped into his Friday morning classes.
“It was insane because I had two kids. And as difficult as it was for me, my wife…I can’t believe she went along with it. She was the one who enabled us to do that.”
He received his smicha in April 2011, and the night after his first Pesach in Birmingham as a rabbi, the region was hit by a series of terrible tornadoes.
“There were 100 tornadoes in the state and 400 people were killed,” he recalled.
Rabbi Yammer and the congregation worked with Nechama: The Jewish Response to Disaster, hosting college students who came to help clean up and rebuild.
“We had about 600 college students sleeping in the shul…and rebuilt 5 or 6 houses from the foundations up. It was amazing and a very special thing.”
Rabbi Yammer was nominated by a Knesseth Israel congregant and named by the Jewish Daily Forward as one of America’s 33 most inspiring rabbis in 2015.
Unfortunately, Knesseth Israel lost one of its largest financial donors and was unable to continue to afford his salary.
He interviewed for the position at B’nai Torah and they offered him the job pretty quickly.
“It was a good match,” he says. “I felt like this community had a lot to offer and a lot of interesting challenges.”
The biggest challenge, he says, is demographics.
To get a shul to grow, he says, the members have to take ownership of getting people into the community and thus into the synagogue. Emphasizing the low cost of living to people in other cities who might be looking to relocate, letting Jews in other areas know if a great house down the street is on the market, notifying people if one hears about a job at their company are just a few of the examples he cited that help to grow the Jewish population.
“The only way to beat demographics is you have always got to be selling and pushing the advantages of where you live,” he said.
Using social media is great for that kind of promotion, he says – but the entire congregation has to make a point to be as welcoming as possible.
“When they asked me in the interview how I was going to grow the shul, I said, ‘I am not going to grow the shul. You are going to grow the shul,’” he said. “The rabbi can get people in the door…I can get people in the door, two, three, maybe four times. But if after the fourth time, they never get invited anywhere, they aren’t coming back. I told them during the interview, ‘I’m going to help create an environment in which people feel cared for… but it is you, the community as a whole, who will grow the shul.”
He said he has every confidence that will happen due to the warm welcome he and his family received from the B’nai Torah community, and the way the shul operates.
“There are volunteers here who really care,” he said. “They address the challenges and take seriously their responsibilities whether it be financial stewardship or caring for people who are ill…the president of the shul also cooks breakfast every morning for minyan. It’s fantastic.”
“I have a great faith in the people I am working with,” he added, with regard to the congregation’s potential. “They are extraordinary. I have a belief that strong communities can strengthen themselves. That when people are excited about what is going on, those kinds of places grow. My hope is that the excitement that I have and so many others here have, others can see as well.”