Three clergy members have recently ascended new pulpits in the region, though none is actually new to the area.
In the July 23 issue, we introduced readers to Rabbi Ellie Miller at Temple B’nai Or, the Reform congregation in Morristown.
Here, a profile of Rabbi Renee Edelman, who is serving at the Reform Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield. The next issue will include a profile of Cantor Shana Onigman, who is at the Conservative Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael.
Rabbi Renee Edelman has her work cut out for her as she takes the pulpit at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield.
Over the last three years, since the departure in 2012 of Rabbi Joshua Goldstein, who served for 30 years, a rift has developed. Membership, which, according to information provided by the synagogue for the 2012 MetroWest Jewish Population Study was 360 family members in 2008 and 265 in 2012, is now at 220.
“I need seven years to change the culture here,” Edelman said.
But Edelman, who said she doesn’t believe in sugar coating and takes a tough love approach to the congregation, may be just the antidote the temple needs.
“I made it known that it’s a cultural thing here that needs to change,” she said. She is advocating an approach that embraces teamwork, that promotes the idea that different people do different things but everyone works together in partnership. “We have to build back that sense of trust and partnership,” she said. “But I think it can be done. This congregation is looking for healing.”
She takes it as a positive sign that some of those who left the congregation in the last few years have called to say they want to come back. But she is establishing a few firm rules.
“I won’t participate in lashon hara,” she said. “I don’t gossip. If we have a conversation, it is between us. If I hear of it someplace else, I’ll know what I can and cannot say to you.
“And I won’t be a mother. If you have an issue with someone, pick up the phone and talk to the person or meet them for coffee. Don’t come to me.”
That approach is part of the focus she has chosen for the year: musar, or values. “We’ll be looking at what it means to be a Jew, ben adam l’adam,” she said, referring to the mitzvot that govern interactions between people. “God rests in those spaces” where people get together, she said.
Edelman distinguishes between purpose and control. “I’m not the type of rabbi who needs to control everything,” she said. “I believe in teamwork, and I believe it’s my job to get to know every single person and their life story and share with them mine.
“Together as a community we will travel through life and celebrate with each other and live Jewish values.”
She also believes that taking part in social action projects will help the healing forward. “By walking 5ks together, or planting flowers together, seeing we can make a difference in people’s lives, the synagogue community will draw closer. If we are working toward a communal purpose and communal goals, there won’t be infighting, and people will begin to appreciate each other.”
Raised in Boston, Edelman graduated from Brandeis University with a BA in English literature and attended Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem and New York, where she was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1997.
She served full-time as associate rabbi first at Temple Emanu-El of Westfield from 1997 until 2003 and then at the Community Synagogue of Port Washington, NY, from 2003 until 2008, when she stepped down to focus on raising her three children, Bailey, now 11, and nine-year-old twins Sophie and Jackson. The family, including her husband, Shane, is in the process of moving from South Orange to Short Hills.
For the past several years she has taken on part-time education work at area synagogues, including Bnai Keshet in Montclair and Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, which her family made their spiritual home. She has developed a niche performing weddings; she said she gets more involved than most rabbis, even going gown shopping with some brides.
And she’s also been writing. She edited a book for the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis and has a blog at chaffingthewheat.wordpress.com.
Sha’arey Shalom was the right opportunity at the right moment, she said, especially given the first two questions the congregation asked when they started interviewing her: How do your kids feel about your returning to the pulpit? And, What have you been missing since you stepped down from the pulpit?
Some women might have bristled at the first question, asserting it would never be asked of a male counterpart. But Edelman said it was a simple acknowledgment of her reality. “They care about my family and my kids and know that my situation at home will change.” She added, “They also understand that something has been missing from my life.”
In her Prada shoes and black Diane Von Furstenberg chemise dress, Edelman has put together a look that makes it easy to envision her with the career in the fashion world she had originally imagined for herself. She initially pooh-poohed other rabbis who urged her into the rabbinate, knowing she could never embrace a career demanding a frumpy wardrobe.
But a woman she met at a pivotal moment — a fashionable and dynamic woman who also happened to be a rabbi — helped her understand how she could be herself while pursuing a personal credo of trying “to make the words of our tradition meaningful for today.”
“We talked Armani and Torah and shatnes,” she recalled. By then Edelman had been teaching religious school all over the Boston area.
At Sha’arey Shalom, she has already started recruiting teens to come back to the shul, with discussions about Rachel Dolezal — the former NAACP chapter president who resigned following allegations she had lied about her racial background — and Jewish identity. Enrollment in the synagogue’s Hebrew high school is now at 30, twice what it was last year. Edelman said she would like that number to double again this year.
She said she would also like to bring religious school back to Sunday — it currently meets only on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons — and add a lifelong education component so that people of all ages come into the building on Sundays. She envisions meditation sessions or a coffee shop, and all kinds of classes, including cooking for holidays.
“I want to see the synagogue become the center of communal life in this area,” she said. “I’m very excited to make this place a place for all people.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the number of years Rabbi Joshua Goldstein served the synagogue. It is 30, not 35. In addition, the article incorrectly reported that membership “dropped from 550 families.” In fact, the synagogue had 365 family members in 2008, and, according to the synagogue, the average membership was about 375 families during most of Goldstein's tenure.