Vicki Seren Tuckman, the new rabbi at Lawrenceville’s Temple Micah, sees “openness and flexibility” as the core strengths of the 43-year-old congregation. She might also have mentioned its stability.
Since its founding in 1969, the unaffiliated, egalitarian congregation has had just three religious leaders — Tuckman; Rabbi Albert Ginsburgh, who served from 1970 to 1992; and Rabbi Ellen Greenspan, who held the post for the past 20 years. In addition, Temple Micah has had just one home for four-plus decades — the historic Presbyterian Church of Lawrenceville, which was founded in 1698 and has occupied the same building since 1764.
Meeting for services just one Friday each month, Temple Micah says its mission is “to provide a warm and comfortable atmosphere where all individuals and their families and friends are welcome and can realize their own connection to Judaism, without financial burden.”
Congregation president Mary Kuller says dues are voluntary, and there are about 170 “enrolled member units” — including families, singles, and single parents. Other income comes from donations, tuition for the approximately 60 students enrolled in the religious school, and fees for special events such as the annual congregational seder. All are welcome at High Holy Day services, and there is no charge.
Clearly, this is not the most typical of rabbinical assignments, and Temple Micah’s leaders were aware of this as they began their search in January. The committee, consisting of four board members and two at-large members of the congregation, placed ads on Jewishjobs.com, in New Jersey Jewish News, and in The Jewish Exponent, a Philadelphia-area weekly. “We also sought help from prominent rabbinical placement bureaus — the Academy of Jewish Religion and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College,” said Kuller.
Perhaps most important, she added, “We listened to our members, and we reached out with significant telephone networking efforts — particularly in our local area.”
From about 50 resumes, the committee interviewed seven candidates. Three of these were invited to visit and conduct services. “Since we only hold services once a month, we scheduled two special services to give each individual an equal chance,” Kuller explained. Attendance at the “try-out” services was about double that of a typical Friday night.
Tuckman was among the candidates approached by the temple, rather than one of those who had submitted a resume. For the past six years, she has served as director of Jewish life at URJ Camp Harlam in Kunkletown, Pa., a job she will keep as she assumes her part-time pulpit.
“We were impressed by her strong educational background and her history of having worked in various other part-time positions,” Kuller said. “Also, she understood us. She said she’d told her husband, ‘These people have had just two rabbis in more than 40 years. I won’t “flirt” with them. If I go for this job, I have to be really comfortable and prepared to make a commitment.’”
Tuckman signed a contract in May and started work on July 1, when services were on hiatus. She will officially be introduced to the congregation during High Holy Day services.
Tuckman graduated from Syracuse University in 1991 and worked for a few years at a Manhattan public relations agency. “Judaism had always been a continuous source of goodness and joy in my life, ranging from Jewish summer camp, youth group, experiences with my family and synagogue, to being in Israel,” she said.
She told her childhood rabbi that she was dreaming about being a Jewish educator, and he encouraged her to go to rabbinical school. Since being ordained in 2003 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, she has been a classroom teacher at all age levels, and served in multiple Hillel settings and at a boarding school. She was an assistant rabbi at a congregation with 800-plus members, where she focused on preschool, youth, and education. She also served as the interim rabbi and director of education for a small congregation of 50 families.
Her husband, Rob, is wellness director at Camp Harlam, and their three children, Jonah, 13; Elon, 12; and Yael, eight, all are campers. The family lives in Princeton, just minutes from Temple Micah.
In her new post, Tuckman will conduct services along with cantorial soloist Adrienne Rubin, direct the religious school, prepare students for bar and bat mitzva, perform other life-cycle ceremonies, and serve as a spiritual guide for the congregants.
As a breast cancer survivor, Tuckman said, “I view pastoral care as one of the most important parts of my rabbinate. Being available for others — whether for conversation over a cup of coffee, a supportive and listening ear, a contemplative walk in the woods — is of the utmost of importance to me.”
The new rabbi acknowledged a debt to her predecessor. “Rabbi Greenspan is a wonderful rabbi and colleague,” she said. “I have no doubt it is because of her care and love that this is such a healthy and happy congregation. There is a strong feeling of good will and gratitude that I feel from the members. This was instilled and inspired by Rabbi Greenspan’s commitment to Temple Micah. I am lucky to follow in her footsteps.”
A prolific writer as well as pulpit rabbi and educator, Tuckman has contributed numerous entries to Union for Reform Judaism’s blog (blogs.rj.org) and also has discussed her experiences as a cancer patient at www.caringbridge.org.
In her most recent Rosh Hashana blog, Tuckman wrote that her “first memories of the holiday are more affect and emotion than anything else. I remember the excitement of my mother picking out special clothes for me to wear and taking the time to do my hair with bows and barrettes. I recall the smells of my grandmother’s kitchen as I exited the elevator on the sixth floor of her apartment building…. I remember feeling loved by my older cousins, knowing it was the holiday celebrations in our lives that pulled us together. I remember how exotic it felt to dip apples and honey and know — instinctively — that this was Jewish and unique and particular to this group of people I belonged to.”
Asked to describe her philosophy of Judaism, Tuckman responded that it mirrors that of Mordecai Kaplan, a cofounder of Reconstructionist Judaism, who, she said, believed that “Judaism is a civilization, with many paths to achieving connectedness with the divine and with Judaism.”
“We are so much more than simply a religion, but a ‘people’ with many ways of connecting Jewishly,” said Tuckman. For some it might be through prayer and services, she said, “for others it is through culture, art, music, cooking, hiking, or reading…. My goal is to help people realize what is deeply spiritual in their lives, as well as what it is that makes them feel good about being Jewish and how this can inspire each of us to live a life of meaning and kavana.”