For Rabbi Rebecca Gutterman, assuming the pulpit at Temple Emanu-El in Edison is both a return to somewhat familiar territory and the chance to discover new terrain.
She took over as religious leader of the 59-year-old Reform congregation July 8, replacing Rabbi David Vaisberg, who left June 30 after seven years at Emanu-El to become senior rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham in
A native of Providence, R.I., Gutterman was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC) in Manhattan. She has returned to the East Coast, where she will be near family and familiar sites, after spending five years at Congregation B’nai Tikvah, in the San Francisco Bay-area community of Walnut Creek. Prior to that, Gutterman was at Temple B’rith Kodesh in Rochester, N.Y., since her 2004 ordination.
Gutterman grew up in Temple Beth-El in Providence, where her father, Rabbi Leslie Gutterman, was religious leader from 1970 to 2015 and remains as rabbi emeritus.
“I’m coming home as a Northeasterner to where things are geographically closer to each other, and I have the opportunity to be closer to family in Rhode Island and in the Boston area,” she said in a phone interview with NJJN. “It’s a combination of what feels familiar and what is waiting to be discovered.”
Having moved to Metuchen with her husband, Michael Simons, and 3-year-old son, Jonah, Gutterman has found a community where, she said, she feels a high level of comfort.
“There is a lack of anonymity, which some people find stifling, but I find endearing,” she said. “It’s like where I grew up on the east side of Providence.”
Beyond the community itself, Gutterman also appreciates that the move puts her within easy access of New York, where she can take advantage of the cultural and intellectual Jewish offerings, including programs and lectures at HUC.
“I have no doubt this will be great for my family as we take advantage of everything Jewish in New York and New Jersey,” said the 48-year-old rabbi.
Gutterman said she felt an instant connection to Emanu-El, which, besides being a well-established community, is “really engaging with younger families and religious school families.”
“It is a congregation open to asking the good questions about the next generation and how we can be a point of meaning and relevance in their lives,” said Gutterman. “I like that it is a place that feels right for leadership that will be respected for where they are and what they stand for.” The congregation leaders, she said, “really emphasize listening to people, something I very much look forward to doing as part of the process of discerning new adventures and paradigms I might want to try.”
At her previous positions, she developed innovative Shabbat worship ideas, including music programs, a speakers’ series, and alternative sermon formats, including some with congregational participation. Gutterman also integrated social justice issues into teen programming and taught adult education classes on topics ranging from spiritual poetry to Jewish views of moral issues.
While living in San Francisco years ago, she worked with The Traveling Jewish Theatre and has used her entertainment background to integrate performance art as a means to impart Jewish values and the cultural aspects of Judaism to teens and others.
Her husband is a theater professional, focusing mostly on set design and building for both youth and adult productions.
Temple Emanu-El copresident and rabbinic search committee chair Janet Alder Suss said the 225-family congregation was looking for three attributes in particular as they were reviewing candidates: They wanted their rabbi to be approachable, warm, and engaging. The three top candidates were brought in for interviews and were asked to lead an adult education class and a teen program and to present a d’var Torah to the temple board.
Gutterman, said Suss, was the unanimous choice of the committee, the board, and the congregation.
“She fulfilled the criteria our congregants said was most important to them; she was approachable, warm, and engaging,” Suss said. “The other thing that ranked high was being empathetic, compassionate, and musical. We pride ourselves in this congregation on our love of music and incorporating it into our services.” Additionally, because the rabbi has a young son, Suss said, the board felt she could relate to young families, and Gutterman, with her husband, “does a lot of fun things with kids.”
Another important aspect of the religious leader’s role is social action, said Suss. Gutterman “has been very involved with gun control and the March for Our Lives,” the student-led movement calling for legislation to prevent gun violence, which began in March 2018 following the mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
Suss added that in January 2017, Gutterman co-led Shabbat services before the Women’s March in Walnut Creek, Calif., held in solidarity with the larger Women’s March in Washington, D.C., the day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration.
As she begins her new position, Gutterman said, she believes “you have to understand and respect a community and where they come from before you make changes.”
However, she already has some ideas on connecting people in creative ways. For instance, she hopes to host a “tot Shabbat” open house at her home before the end of the summer. “I want our family’s home to be open to the synagogue,” she said. “I really like doing things outside the temple walls because that helps people see in a very natural way that Judaism can be lived and sensed through many different moments and experiences.”
But it’s not all about the young families. “It is also important to me to connect with members of the founding generation while focusing on the future,” said Gutterman. “People who have been part of the community’s past for a very long time hold its history, and that is very significant.”