Although the study of anthropology and wildlife conservation are not prerequisites for the rabbinate, Aaron Philmus says they are essential to his understanding of the “Sacred.”
“I really believe that when people develop a direct and regular relationship and connection with the more-than-human world, they will naturally feel a sense of awe and wonder, and those parts of them that have been sleeping because of our disconnect will just automatically turn on,” he said.
Philmus hopes to bring that understanding as the new rabbi at Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, Pa., which serves the Bucks County, Pa., and Mercer County communities.
Having previously served as a Jewish nature educator and wildlife ecologist in various settings, including the Teva Learning Center in Connecticut and Camp Ramah in the Colorado Rockies, Philmus said he would consider new projects at the synagogue such as buying local foods and growing food for the needy.
“I tend to integrate nature and ecology concepts and environmental stewardship in a natural way throughout,” he said.
Philmus said he is excited to be on home turf: He grew up in Matawan and served as rabbinic intern at United Synagogue of Hoboken in New Jersey. His relatives still live nearby.
“There’s something really unique and special about this place and also just about being in a smaller community,” he said. “You have a much more multi-generational experience and you also have a real sense of the shtetl and the community, where people really care about each other and they know each other.”
“We are thrilled to welcome Rabbi Philmus to our family,” said congregation copresident Stephen Minsky in a press release. “He brings with him a passion for Judaism and strong background in education and tradition that reflects the needs of today’s Jewish community, across ages, lifecycle needs, and inclusive of interfaith families.”
Philmus said his parents, Irma and Ken Philmus, who still live in Matawan, taught him the value of synagogue life. His parents’ dedication to the family’s congregation, Temple Beth Ahm in Aberdeen, he told NJJN, “helped me feel a strong responsibility and devotion to our people.”
‘Sense of awe’
In high school, Philmus began studying Eastern and Native American cultures, ecology, and environmental justice. At the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, he met his wife and got involved in Hillel, while studying anthropology and wildlife conservation.
He also spent time in Australia, where he studied the aborigines. It was then that he began to realize the roots of the Jewish people are “based in agricultural life and also in the wilderness, where the Torah was received and the prophets received the word of God and experienced revelations,” he said.
After spending time alone in the woods “vision questing” and fasting, Philmus found a spiritual connection to his ancestors and Judaism.
He said he realized he wanted to help people “find a connection to Judaism that really expresses something real for them that is not just in a book, but something that is experiential and that connects with what already inspires them and what the original inspiration for religion was, which is a sense of awe and wonder for creation and life.”
Philmus worked in Jewish nature education, but reevaluated his life after the 9/11 attacks. His father and brother-in-law had offices in the World Trade Center, and it took hours for Philmus to find out they had survived.
As a result, Philmus decided he could use his skills to the fullest by becoming a rabbi and enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He then served as director of congregational life and learning at Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco.
Philmus, who plays guitar, also said he believes the Conservative movement can incorporate more music into the synagogue, while maintaining a traditional style and approach to prayer.
At Brothers of Israel, Philmus succeeds Rabbi Shalom Plotkin, who held the pulpit for three years. Rabbi Howard “Zvi” Hersch, who served the synagogue as religious leader for close to a half-century, remains as rabbi emeritus. His continued involvement in the congregation, Philmus said, is an “asset” and a “tremendous blessing.”
Philmus’ wife, Valerie, is a professional chef, and they have two children, Sophie, five, and Aeden, two.