Rabbi Charles Popky does not yet know where his family will live, nor is he 100 percent sure where his 11- and 13-year-old kids will be going to school in the fall. His wife, a teacher, does not yet have a position.
But Popky makes it abundantly clear that he’s really happy to be the new rabbi at White Meadow Temple in Rockaway.
“White Meadow Lake is like living in summer camp all year round,” he said. “It’s beautiful here.”
Popky, ordained in 1988 at the Jewish Theological Seminary, has worked in a variety of settings across North America. Right after ordination he took a position in Kansas City, Kan., as an associate rabbi; when the senior rabbi resigned, he was tapped, though he had little prior experience, to head the 1,400-person congregation. Since then he’s worked at a small congregation in the Dallas/Fort Worth area; a larger synagogue in Lowell, Mass.; and one in West Bloomfield, Michigan.
For the last 10 years he’s been in Ottawa, Canada, first at Agudath Israel Congregation for eight years, and as a freelance rabbi and educator and rabbinic adviser at Adath Shalom Congregation for the last two years.
He and his wife, Alison, both originally from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., were eager to move closer to their aging parents, who still live there. So when White Meadow Temple offered him a position, he jumped. He succeeds Rabbi Benjamin Adler, who assumed the position in 2007 and left to become religious leader at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville on July 1.
Frank about his own precarious position, Popky, 55, said, “When you’re over 50, it’s a challenge as a rabbi” to find a new pulpit.
He calls White Meadow Temple “a proud multi-generational congregation” with “a strong spark.”
“People grow up here and come back,” he said. “There’s an overall sense of closeness, and that’s a healthy environment.”
He pointed to the recent “scrapbook siddur” the community created, spearheaded by its former student cantor and rabbinic intern, Hillary Chorny. The homemade prayer book incorporates liturgy with memorabilia from the lives of congregants. “The new siddur is not just an exercise in nostalgia. This congregation wants to have a meaningful service, to be an exciting, meaningful congregation,” Popky said.
He doesn’t mind that its member families number fewer than 200. Referring to the recent Pew study, he quipped, “Every congregation is shrinking. Mine comes pre-shrunk.”
More seriously, Popky added, “So many congregations are struggling. The big ones are bleeding members. I’ve spent the last few years working with smaller congregations, and while all congregations have strengths and weaknesses, small congregations are well positioned to build on relationships. “So much of what is important today in congregations is relationships. I think that’s the thing that will keep people coming to synagogues,” he said, paraphrasing the key idea of Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community, a recent work by Dr. Ron Wolfson.
“A synagogue is not always about growing in number,” he said, “but in character, in the impact it has on the community.”