By Stacey Dresner
LEOMINSTER – When she was in high school Eve Eichenholtz dreamed of going into politics.
“I love political campaigns and advocacy,” she says. “I wasn’t so much interested in being a politician or the policy person, but I loved the rest of that world.”
She changed her mind in the 10th grade on her way home from March of the Living, the educational program that takes students to the concentration camps of Poland and then to Israel to examine the Holocaust and roots of intolerance and hatred.
“I will remember the moment for the rest of my life,” she recalls. “I had an incredible mentor, Rabbi Arnie Samlan, and we were coming home from Israel on the plane and were having this conversation about the fact that I wanted to go into politics. He thought I would make a good rabbi…he was incredibly supportive and always pushing me towards the rabbinate.
“He asked, ‘So why do you want to go into politics?’ I’m young and naïve and I said, ‘I believe I can change the world. I believe that by listening to people’s individual stories I can hear what motivates them and then use that information to get them to vote in a way that I think is better for the world or support a policy that I think is good for our country…I liked hearing one-on-one stories and inspiring people to act and move and to engage…’ He looks at me, and goes, ‘And what’s the difference between all of that and being a rabbi?’ My eyes opened… I realized that being a rabbi ultimately meant I get to do everything I want to do without giving anything up. So when I was a kid, I was set on politics but I also loved theater. [As a rabbi] I get to do public speaking — I get the theater… I love teaching; I love pastoral care; I love the board meetings — I get to do everything as a rabbi and do it all within this context, that has just been part of who I am.”
Rabbi Eichenholtz tells this story with enthusiasm and exuberance. It is her outgoing and engaging nature that attracted Congregation Agudat Achim — the 100-family synagogue in Leominster– to bring her on as rabbi in July of 2019. Before arriving at the she had been in her first pulpit in Fayetteville, N.C. for five years.
“I came to Leominister for the job and the community, and could not be more pleased to be here and to be growing and journeying with this congregation,” Rabbi Eisenholtz said.
Despite her early desire to enter the world of politics, many who knew her during her Conservative Jewish upbringing in Long Island thought she was meant for the rabbinate.
“I was a Ramah Berkshires kid and [went to] Schechter and was very active in synagogue life,” Rabbi Eichenholtz said. “As I like to say, I was THAT kid, the really annoying ones running around like they owned the place. And it kind of stuck!”
After she graduated from high school, Eichenholtz was admitted to the Barnard College – Jewish Theological Seminary Double Degree program.
“At Schechter, I just loved doing both Jewish studies in parallel with all of my secular subjects,” she said. “So I just kept going on that dual track.”
She went on to get a BA from Barnard in economics and an undergraduate degree from JTS in Bible.
“And then I started rabbinical school at JTS… and while doing that I also pursued, on the side, classes in nonprofit management and budgeting and fundraising, because I always knew that my path was going to lead me to a community exactly like I have here in Leominster, where I get to spend most my time focused on the religious life of the community, but also, I get to be part of the community when we look at our budget and things like that and I wanted to be a rabbi who could speak to all of that.
“One of my mentors used to say it’s way easier to give a sermon on a Saturday morning if the roof isn’t leaking. And I took that to heart as to what it means to be a rabbi and be able to be available to all parts of my community.”
While she first began attending JTS for rabbinical school, Eichenholtz soon switched to the Academy of Jewish Religion in New York.
“While I am very much part of Conservative Judaism– as is Congregation Agudat Achim — the vision I had of my synagogue was one that is like where I am now. In Leominster, we are the only synagogue. It takes 20, 30, 40 minutes to be at the next synagogue, in bigger cities like Worcester or even in Boston, our surrounding Jewish community where you can go to the Conservative synagogue, or the Reform synagogue or the Orthodox synagogue or Chabad or the havurah. I saw myself working in communities where that was not the case…AJR is a pluralistic school. It doesn’t say denominations aren’t part of our Jewish world or aren’t ideal in our Jewish world. What it says is there is wisdom, and value and room for a variety of Jewish streams…So knowing that I wanted to work in that type of community, I felt I needed to learn in a place that was going to foster those elements of my rabbinate.”
Eichenholtz also took a year to work in an accounting firm, which she says was just another part of her rabbinical training.
“I had never had to juggle the Jewish calendar with the secular calendar at Schechter or rabbinical school…So what was it like for my congregants who didn’t have that, who needed to talk to bosses and schools about how we navigate Jewish life in a largely non Jewish world? I wanted to make sure that I was part of that world as well.”
That world turned upside-down halfway through her first year leading the 100-family Leominster congregation when Covid-19 hit.
“It’s been a bit of a crazy year… There are still things that I’m doing that probably should have been done in the first six months, and other things I feel we are doing years ahead of where we planned on being. We have technology in our sanctuary and all of those things that were in the future, ‘let’s talk about it’ are now a part of our reality.”
Since the summer Agudat Achim, like many congregations, has been holding services via Zoom, and is now venturing into a hybrid mode.
“People can walk into the sanctuary and see three computers and video cameras everywhere… I read from the bimah; we have others who participate and lead parts of services from their homes. We have Zoom; we have a two-way connection to – I’m hesitant to use the word normalcy in any kind of context — but to keep as much of our communal and liturgical traditions as we can in this time…We are still honoring all of our lifecycle events and are there for each other at times of joy and sadness as we would in any year, and using technology to aid us in that and also create new ways of being.”
High Holiday services were hybrid, with some congregants participating in services over Zoom and some, socially-distanced and wearing masks, in the sanctuary.
“It was unusual looking out and seeing half the congregation in the sanctuary and half on the computer screen, but we move forward and still maintain our Judaism in N. Central Mass., even through everything.”
Rabbi Eichenholtz said she loves that her congregants are more likely to offer solutions to problems than complaints.
In the midst of the High Holidays, a congregant with children in the religious school mentioned to Rabbi Eichenholtz that they were trying to figure out what to do with the synagogue’s sukkah, usually decorated by the students of the religious school, which is still operating virtually.
“So, some of the parents got together and said, ‘We want to host Sukkot in the sukkah over Zoom,” she recalled. “I walk into the sukkah and people have decorated the sukkah. I think there are more decorations up this year than there were last year when we decorated it officially as part of religious school,” Rabbi Eichenholtz marveled. “Families came in one at a time to decorate the sukkah and to eat in the sukkah. We are trying to maintain our social distancing, so we created a little calendar on our listserv and people are booking appointments to come in and eat in the sukkah or decorate the sukkah.”
No one had to send a call out to members asking for volunteers, the rabbi said,
“This was two families who said we do this annually for the kids in religious school, we want to make this happen this year. That’s incredible. I often say for me one of the greatest strengths of a small congregation is that we should be as adaptable to almost anything that you want.
“By and large what you dream your synagogue can be, it can be. I love being in partnership with the congregation and fostering that, and working together. That’s the community that we have here and it’s incredible.”