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Why wait for retirement when you can hire now?

Local synagogue tests a new model for rabbinic succession

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel plans to retire in three years.
Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel plans to retire in three years.

WHEN RABBI ALAN Silverstein, religious leader of Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell since 1979, decided it was time to think about retirement, the Conservative synagogue community stepped into action and took out a page from the corporate playbook. After undertaking focus groups and surveys, they decided, together with Silverstein, to hire someone who would be groomed to take over. They wanted neither a young assistant rabbi with limited experience, nor someone ready to take over as senior clergy member. And they certainly didn’t want to wait for Silverstein to retire in three years to begin their search. Instead, they wanted someone to work with him for a few years and then take over as senior rabbi upon his retirement.

It seemed like a no-brainer to synagogue president Victor Nhaisi.

“I’m a business person,” he told NJJN. “A succession plan, in business, is thought of as a key criteria of a business plan. Who waits until the CEO retires to find the next leader?”

But it was not an obvious move for the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly (RA), which handles rabbinic placement.

The RA generally offers four categories for hiring: senior rabbi, assistant rabbi, interim rabbi, and part-time rabbi. There is no associate rabbi position. Senior rabbis must have a certain number of years in the rabbinate, while the assistant rabbi position is open to all levels of experience.

While Agudath Israel knew they needed someone with more experience than a recent rabbinical school graduate, they also wanted someone young, who would be able to connect with the synagogue’s families.

At 925 family members, Agudath Israel is the largest Conservative synagogue in New Jersey. It has more than 100 children enrolled in its early childhood center, 275 in the religious school, and 150 in its teen programs; around 75 young members are enrolled in day schools.

Agudath Israel isn’t the first Conservative synagogue to promote a rabbi from within the congregation into the senior rabbi position. Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill and B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, Md., both did so, but in each case the rabbi had been at the congregation since ordination.

It is also not the only congregation to hire with a retirement plan for the senior rabbi in mind. But it is a practice generally frowned upon as unlikely to bring in the best candidates for the position.

According to Rabbi Elliot Salo Schoenberg, the RA’s senior vice president and global director of rabbinic career development, the best way to handle a longtime senior rabbi’s retiring is to engage an interim rabbi for a year of separation following retirement. “The shadow of a successful senior rabbi is very deep and very influential,” he said. “The congregation has a hard time distinguishing what’s the rabbi and what is the congregation.”

Once the rabbi has gone, the congregation generally has an easier time understanding not only who it is, but who it would like to be in the next chapter. “Then, the search for a rabbinic leader will take you to the next chapter,” he said.

In some cases, for internal reasons that have little to do with probabilities of success, congregations opt to set aside this advice, and according to Schoenberg, some have success; others less so. In one case, very few rabbis applied for the job. In another, a rabbi was hired but left before the three-year period had ended.

“I’m all about probabilities for success,” said Schoenberg, who said that hiring with a retirement plan works “every once in a while,” but “it does not have a high rate of success.”

The Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), which handles placement for its rabbis, does have a position known as “associate successor” in its handbook. In that case, a congregation could post such a position, and it would be open to any rabbi who, at the time of application, would be eligible to take on the senior post. 

However, Rabbi Cindy Enger, director of placement at the CCAR, says the position has not been used in recent years. “It is no longer regarded by us as a best practice,” said Enger. Like Schoenberg, she advised using an interim rabbi, especially following a longtime successful one.

Silverstein takes a different approach. “In my opinion, if you’ve had a rabbi in place for a long time, this is a much more effective way of a terrific replacement being embraced by the congregation and ensuring a smooth transition,” he said.

Agudath Israel posted the position as an assistant rabbi and used both the accompanying documents and word of mouth to explain what they were doing. And they took their time — two years — to make their selection.

On Aug. 27, Rabbi Ari Lucas started as associate rabbi. He came to the congregation with six years of experience at Temple Beth Am, a similarly sized congregation in Los Angeles.

“I realized it’s a blessing to move from a place where you’re happy to a place where you’re happy,” he said.

Nhaisi believes other congregations will follow Agudath Israel’s lead. In the meantime, Silverstein called Lucas more partner than a person to mentor.

“Rabbi Ari Lucas is not a rookie,” he said. “He has a lot of ideas to bring to the table and there’s a lot of mutual sharing. It’s great.” He added that given the size of the congregation, “This is a much better staff model for us.”

The congregation plans to hire an assistant rabbi following Silverstein’s retirement.

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