Taking over the helm of the 700-family Shir Ami Reform synagogue in Newtown, Pa., in July, Rabbi Joel Simon was drawn to the diversity of the community.
“We have a great preschool; a strong religious school, b’nei mitzva program, and youth group; lots and lots of young families; recent empty-nesters; and we have a vibrant senior community,” he told NJJN.
“What is great about being the rabbi of such a diverse community means I’m a member of each of those communities, and I will be present at as many of their activities as I can be,” he said. “I get to be a member of 700 families to celebrate with them and be with them in their times of need — it’s a pretty awesome job.”
Simon succeeds Elliot Strom, who retired after 36 years with the congregation. Simon spent eight years at the 120-year-old Congregation Schaarai Zedek in Tampa, Fla., his first position after finishing rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and was named associate rabbi in 2011.
Simon said he was lucky to work with the senior rabbi of the 1,000-family synagogue, Richard Birnholz, who viewed him as a partner. “He was a teacher, mentor, and friend, and he let me participate in every aspect of rabbinic life — from preschool to seniors and life-cycle events, pastoral care, teaching — really getting to do a little bit of everything, which prepared me to take on a position like this one,” he said.
Simon grew up at Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colo., where his parents met in the youth group and were both Sunday school teachers. His father blew the shofar on the High Holy Days. “It was always a second home for us, which is definitely one of my goals in what we are creating here,” Simon said.
At his first guitar lesson, he recalled, the eight-year-old Simon was asked what he wanted to learn. His answer was “Barchu,” a setting for the call to prayer. And even before his bar mitzva he was teaching music to the younger kids at his synagogue. He was a song leader at his youth group and camp, and with fellow rabbinical students started a rock band called The Minor Prophets.
Simon started thinking about the rabbinate as early as his bar mitzva, and remembered being cast as the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof and winning the “most likely to be a rabbi” award in his youth group at age 16 or 17.
But what finally decided this math-and-science guy on being a rabbi was when he was taking an actuarial exam during his senior year of high school. “I had a vision of myself doing math behind a desk for the rest of my life and knew that was not a job for me,” Simon said. “I knew interacting with people, teaching, being present in times of need — all the things a rabbi does — were the things I wanted to be doing.”
Figuring he would be going straight to rabbinical school after college, his plan was to “take time off from Jewish life” while he was at the University of Arizona in Tucson. By Rosh Hashana he found himself leading services at Hillel, was president of the organization in his third year, and “ended up teaching at every synagogue in Tucson.”
At Hebrew Union College, for three years he headed the youth programs department, which brought high school and college students to the Cincinnati campus for weekends. He had student pulpits in Padukah, Ky., and Richmond, Ind., and an internship in Louisville, Ky. “I loved taking every opportunity to learn,” he said.
Simon was married a year and a half ago; his wife, Jacent, was a hair stylist in Florida, but will stay home with the baby the couple is expecting in September.
Simon said he hopes to bring in new energy, ideas, and excitement to a synagogue that is already strong. He would like to see more intergenerational programming that takes advantage of the congregation’s diversity, for example, bringing preschool kids to senior activities or having seniors speak to the youth group.
Other possibilities are alternative Shabbat activities like a hike or doing a Shabbat for young families at a children’s museum or the zoo. The idea, he said, is “taking Shabbat out to where families are and bringing Shabbat to them, showing that Shabbat can be part of your life even when you have other obligations and things you’re doing with your family.”