There’s not a time Rabbi Marc Katz, 33, can recall that he didn’t want to be a rabbi. “I remember being a young boy, looking at the rabbi, and saying I want to do that,” he told NJJN in his new office at Temple Ner Tamid, a Reform congregation in Bloomfield, where he began his duties on July 1. “The more I understood what a rabbi does, the more I wanted to do it.”
He succeeds Rabbi Steven Kushner, who served the congregation for 38 years and retired in June.
Katz, who grew up in a small congregation, Temple Habonim in Barrington, R.I., had more than a few opportunities to change his trajectory. But he said the pulpit called to him.
He tried studying Talmud as an academic, “but there was nothing holy in it,” he said. He was offered a position at a prestigious Jewish non-profit. But the same day the offer arrived, he had officiated at a brit mila that marked his third lifecycle event with the same couple.
“I realized I want to be a rabbi who touches people’s souls,” he said, recognizing the lure of a pulpit position. “I love being with people in the most important moments of their lives.”
In conversation with NJJN on a recent Monday morning, dressed in a purple polo shirt and jeans, Katz described his philosophy of synagogue life, the importance of relationships in building a congregation, and the draw of Ner Tamid.
He had a moment of clarity when it came to choosing Temple Ner Tamid, a congregation of 500 families. He recalled coming for the interview and facing two “grueling” panel sessions. In between was 20 minutes of shmoozing. And that’s when he knew.
When the formality of the search committee eased, “I had such a good time,” he said. “They were making snarky jokes and quoting The New York Times. It seemed half of them were from my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I felt, these are my people.” (Katz was living in Park Slope at the time.)
And so far, “I haven’t been disappointed,” he said. He described the congregants as “a group of people who are dedicated, smart, and bring their passion inside the walls of the synagogue.”
And the congregational leadership appears equally enamored. “He’s really a good fit,” said president Ken Cohen. They’re impressed with Katz’s “intellectual heft,” said Cohen, as well as his creativity, pastoral skills, and focus on building relationships.
“He has an encyclopedic knowledge of text and he has a way of making it accessible,” said Cohen. “That’s perfect for us.”
Katz received ordination in 2012 from the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. He learned the art and craft of the rabbinate at Congregation Beth Elohim, a prominent Reform congregation of more than 1,000 members in Park Slope, where he has served since 2008 — first as a teacher, then as a rabbinic intern, and eventually as assistant, then associate rabbi.
During those years, Katz developed what he calls a philosophy of what makes for good synagogue life, and he’s not shy about sharing his wisdom—let’s call them Katz’s Principles. The values include partnering with cultural institutions and social justice organizations, and meeting congregants’ needs at different stages of life.
For instance, congregants can expect to study “the spirituality of downsizing,” he said, but also share the stresses of aging parents and learn what it means to be a parent. For Katz, inserting Judaism supplies meaning in these moments. “If Judaism is not there in those places and does not have a say or a voice in what people care about, then I’m not sure what we are doing,” he said.
And he’s a believer in relational Judaism, a way of saying that synagogue life is about relationships rather than programs. As far as Katz is concerned, programs only exist for the sake of strengthening relationships and engaging with deep questions. “Someone should leave an event feeling closer to the person sitting next to them,” he said. The engagement part comes from following up a speaker presentation with a facilitated discussion, a model he learned at Beth Elohim.
Katz has already taken on social justice issues. He joined a local effort on Tisha b’Av eve to protest immigration policy by reciting Maariv and the Book of Lamentations outside of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Newark.
He’s also focused on changing the orientation of the congregation when local issues arise. He criticizes the congregation for focusing more on the closing of the historic Bellevue Theater in Upper Montclair than on the closing of the only grocery store in Montclair’s Fourth Ward, historically less affluent than other neighborhoods of Montclair.
“I want to figure out how to change that conversation, so that people will care about the loss of the grocery store and not the movie theater.” (The grocery store closed in 2015; two years later, it remained the focus of local newspaper articles when the movie theater closed in 2017.)
Katz also brings his passion for writing into the rabbinate. The author of “The Heart of Loneliness: How Judaism Can Help You Cope and Find Comfort” (Jewish Lights, 2016), a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, he has written numerous articles on topics from Jewish perspectives on gun control to divorce and the spirituality of sex. He is at work on his next book about Judaism and integrity, but admits that “it’s not going so well,” due to the demands on his time of moving and settling into a new position. He is involved with the Jewish Book Council as well as the New Israel Fund and J Street. His wife, Ayelet Nelson, is a nurse practitioner who works with adult leukemia patients at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.
Looking ahead, he said, he is excited about growing as a rabbi, and forming “deep bonds” with people in the community. And he’s keenly aware of some of the challenges he will face. “I will have to have a thick skin,” he said about being the sole rabbi at Ner Tamid. “I will love everyone, but I know not everyone will love me back.”
For now, at least, there is plenty of love, perhaps because he understands the challenge of being a community rabbi. As he put it, “Moses is called Moshe Rabbeinu, Moses our rabbi, not Moshe our prophet. That’s because all prophets speak words of God. The rabbi has to speak words of God in such a way that the people are moved.”
His new congregants have faith that he is up to the task.