It took being thrust into a public school with few Jews after years of day school for Rabbi Sara Metz to “really solidify” her Jewish identity.
“It was great to go from one to the other and to be in all that diversity, but when you are one of the few Jews, you have to figure out who you are,” said Metz, who grew up in North Haven, Conn. “It was somewhere in and around that time that I decided to become a rabbi.”
That decision has most recently led Metz to Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy, where she took over the pulpit Aug. 1. She succeeds Rabbi Ari Saks, who was at Beth Mordecai for five years and is now religious leader at Huntington Jewish Center on Long Island.
For Metz, the move to the Conservative Beth Mordecai took her just up the Garden State Parkway from Congregation Torat El in Oakhurst, where she served for three years as assistant rabbi and education director.
Metz said the new position comes with numerous benefits. She already knows many of the rabbis and community leaders in the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ region — in which both synagogues are located — her family now lives a short walk from the synagogue, which is just a block or two from Raritan Bay; and, Metz added, “We love walking by the water.”
For her husband, Lev, the move will mean a shorter drive to his job as a Jewish studies teacher at Golda Och Academy (GOA) in West Orange, especially important this year because the older of the couple’s two sons, Doron, 5, will be commuting with his father to kindergarten at GOA. Their other son, Eitan, is 1.
Even more important, she said, she is taking the helm of a congregation that shares her “passion” for meaningful Jewish learning.
“When I met the community, they were just so incredible and warm; I knew this was a community I wanted to come to and build and be a part of,” Metz told NJJN.
“The people here are open, and they want to do and learn new things. They’re open to new and different ideas and experiences, so I look forward to helping this community go from strength to strength.”
Among her plans are increasing community events in conjunction with the Jewish Community Center of Middlesex County in Edison, a collaboration that began under Saks. Metz also plans to continue other successful outreach programs started by her predecessor, including “Yeshivat Panera” at Panera Bread on Woodbridge Center Drive in Woodbridge — an opportunity for people to learn from the rabbi in an “open-space, low-barrier setting” — and setting up a “rabbi’s table” in the food court at Menlo Park Mall in Edison for shoppers to stop and ask questions.
“My priority is to get to know members of the community and build relationships with them, learn their history, and create social and learning venues inside and outside the synagogue,” said Metz. “I want to have some events for young families and have a little bit for everyone.”
As part of her duties at Torat El, Metz said, she helped create “a more vibrant and experiential” religious school, changing the traditional Sunday school to Saturday to create a “Shabbat school” that allows the children “to really experience a Shabbat service” while also taking part in classroom learning.
While Beth Mordecai has no religious school, Metz said she intends to apply the same innovative approach toward programming for all ages.
The 120-year-old shul is located in a city whose once thriving Jewish community largely left decades ago for the suburbs, leaving Beth Mordecai as the lone remaining synagogue. Many of its members do not live in Perth Amboy, but under Saks’s leadership, membership increased and the synagogue decided to remain in its ancestral home.
Congregation president and rabbinic search committee chair Cheryl August said that in Metz the congregation believes it has found someone to keep the progress going.
“We love her and are just thrilled she and her family are part of Beth Mordecai,” August said. “We love her enthusiasm and the joy she brings to our community. We grew under Rabbi Saks, and we are looking to continue that growth under Rabbi Metz.”
Prior to her work at Torat El, Metz served as a rabbinic intern at several West Coast synagogues and religious schools. She also served as cocreator and gabbai for the B’nei Ikar Minyan in Jerusalem, organizing and leading monthly egalitarian, lay-led Friday night services.
Metz also was selected for Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics with other Jewish, Muslim, and Christian seminary students.
She graduated from Brandeis University with a double major in Near East and Judaic studies and American studies, with a minor in Hebrew language and literature.
She attended American Jewish University in Los Angeles, receiving ordination and a master’s in rabbinic studies from its Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and a master’s in education from the university’s Fingerhut School of Education, all in 2014. She trained in clinical pastoral education at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.
“When I visited the rabbinical school in Los Angeles, it felt right,” said Metz. “After a couple months in Los Angeles, a friend invited me to a party for Sukkot. There I met someone who turned out to be my husband — so Los Angeles was the right place to be.
“You never know the blessings of a new place.”