Shul hurries to fill former rabbi’s shoes
What should leaders of a synagogue do if they have no rabbi in July and the High Holy Days are just around the corner?
In the case of Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit, the answer was to start searching for four different rabbis to replace the departing Amy Small.
“We are going to have lots of rabbis here,” said Katia Segre Cohen of Millburn, past president of the Reconstructionist congregation.
“We hired one to run High Holy Days services, and another to do bar and bat mitzvas for the next few months. We are also in the process of hiring an interim rabbi and we will hire a permanent rabbi for next year.”
Small, who spent 19 years as Beth Hatikvah’s religious leader, left the synagogue after completing a six-month sabbatical in July.
Small said she “did not wish” to comment on the circumstances of her departure, although two congregation leaders interviewed for this article agreed that Small will be hard to replace.
“We have been through personal life cycle events with Rabbi Amy,” said Pam Schachter of Summit, the second vice president of the congregation, who suggested the rabbi and congregation could not agree on her contract. “Unfortunately, the really hard decision was we could no longer afford a rabbi of Amy’s stature. It was an incredibly painful decision for everybody. As beloved as a rabbi is, a rabbi is not what defines a community. We needed to keep ourselves financially healthy so we can continue to do what we’re doing and be what we’re being.”
“Without Rabbi Small I don’t know what the impact will be,” said Cohen. “It is one of those things we will just have to wait and see about.”
Ordained as a Reconstructionist rabbi in 1987, Small was hired as Beth Hatikvah’s rabbi in 1997. She has been a national leader in the Reconstructionist movement as well as in various Jewish and interfaith Middle East peace organizations. She chaired the Rabbinic Cabinet of MetroWest, and served on the board of what is now the Jewish Federations of North America.
At Beth Hatikvah, Small helped lead the congregation into its own building in Summit in 1997, and brought ritual innovations like “Storahtelling,” an approach that combines Bible study, theater, and interactive discussion. Earlier this year she spent time in Israel as a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Rabbinic Leadership Initiative.
“We did not know for certain until the summer that Rabbi Amy would not be with us for the high holidays,” said Schachter, one of the congregants responsible for replacing Small as the religious leader.
Small’s departure launched a set of search committees.
Their first task was to find someone to preside over services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
They hired Michael Luckens, who retired from Kerem Shalom Congregation in Concord, Mass., after serving from 1978 to 2012.
“We really liked him and found him to be a wonderfully engaging person, and his congregants spoke with sadness that he was no longer their rabbi,” said Schachter.
Next up was finding a rabbi to prepare youngsters for the 17 b’nei mitzva scheduled between now and next summer.
“We have bar and bat mitzvas coming up in October, and you have to start working with the families months in advance so that the kid feels comfortable and does not feel like he or she is standing next to a stranger,” said Cohen.
For that job, they hired Rabbi Jeffrey Eisenstadt, the director of Camp JRF, the Reconstructionist movement’s summer camp in South Sterling, Pa.
“We have had an ongoing relationship with Jeff for many years, and as a camp director he relates well to teenagers,” said Schachter.
With those two roles filled, the leaders are now focusing on hiring an interim rabbi who will lead the congregation for the next year.
Schachter said the committee is near a final decision and that person “will hopefully be in place by Oct. 1.”
Synagogues often hire interim rabbis before initiating searches for full-time replacements.
“The interim is someone you get to talk with about what works for you as a congregation and what is hard for you as a congregation in relationship with rabbis,” said Schachter. “This is somebody who will give advice and feedback about your view as a community and how you want to move forward with your next rabbi. The logic is similar to that of someone who has been divorced or widowed in saying ‘people you date in the first year are not candidates for the permanent position.’”