After 21 years as a Reconstructionist rabbi in the Greater MetroWest area, Amy Joy Small will become the religious leader at the Conservative Ohavi Zedek Synagogue in Burlington, Vt., the state’s oldest and largest synagogue, with some 375 member families.
She succeeds Rabbi Joshua Chasan, who also has ties to the GMW area, having served at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair for four years before moving to Burlington in 1991.
Small will begin in her new pulpit on Jan. 1.
Small was the rabbi of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit for 19 years. In March 2013, she founded Deborah’s Palm, an alternative Jewish learning program.
“Sadly I am shutting it down, but I take with me so much I have learned from the whole community here — what they are looking for and what they are not looking for in the benefits of adult learning in a new way,” she said in an Oct. 21 interview in the NJ Jewish News newsroom.
Moving from a Reconstructionist to a Conservative pulpit “will require some modifications,” she said, “but it’s not a huge change.”
After receiving permission from its governing body, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, to seek a candidate outside their movement, Ohavi Zedek’s search committee had several concerns, Small said.
Would their new rabbi support kashrut in the synagogue and at home? Would he or she personally observe Shabbat and conduct all-Hebrew services on Saturday mornings?
Small said “yes” to all of the above.
“The congregation is egalitarian but traditional. That was their bottom line, and those are my values,” she told NJJN. “But they also wanted somebody who could bring in ideas on how to engage people who are not currently engaged.”
She said she plans to conduct “alternative services for others who are seeking something they can connect to in English” as well as a Friday night service “which is more progressive and less traditional.”
Small called the Burlington synagogue’s history of social action programs “amazing.”
“As a Conservative synagogue with a very socially progressive membership, we were looking for someone who could honor the past while also helping move us forward into the future,” wrote search committee member Joanna May in an e-mail to NJJN. “Rabbi Small is clearly rooted in Jewish tradition and learning and is also very connected to the larger world of exciting, cutting-edge Jewish thought and practice. It was not an easy task to find someone who could be all those things for our congregation and also would feel at home in Vermont. We feel really lucky to have her as our next senior rabbi.”
Land owned by the congregation became the site of an affordable housing complex. An old barn on their property was converted into a thrift shop called the “Shalom Shuk.”
“The woman who runs it happens to be a Muslim,” said Small. The store “is part of the congregation’s very strong connection to the interfaith world, and it brings about tremendous good will from the people of Burlington. They come to the synagogue, get great stuff at very low prices, and the synagogue raises a ton of money. This is an example of its creative thinking and commitment to social justice.”
The synagogue also houses English-as-a-second-language classes “because Burlington is a place that welcomes new immigrants from all over the place.”
The famously progressive city of 42,400 on Lake Champlain is the headquarters of Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, whose founders, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield, espouse a variety of liberal causes.
Between 1981 and 1989, its mayor was socialist Bernie Sanders, the independent United States senator who is currently seeking the Democratic nomination for president. “He is not a Jew who likes to belong to a synagogue,” Small said. “But his Jewish values clearly drive who he is and how he sees government.”
Even as she leaves behind their home in Morristown and “a broad network of colleagues and friends that I treasure,” Small and her husband, Bob, consider her job change and move to Vermont “bashert.”
“This is the opportunity for me to fulfill my vision of Jewish community in a new way. I look at this as the culmination of my career, for what I have learned, and what I have experienced and come to understand,” she said. “It is an opportunity to be in a place where there is a tremendous openness to new ideas, while there is also a strong attachment to Jewish tradition and the congregation’s tradition.”