When Rabbi Jeff Pivo of Congregation Beth El of Bucks County in Yardley, Pa., turns over his pulpit to Rabbi Joshua Z. Gruenberg on Shabbat, July 2, he wants to use a significant symbol to commemorate the event.
“I see this as ‘passing the torch’ to my successor. I will read the first three aliyot, then instead of a torch, I will pass him the yad,” said Pivo, referring to the hand-shaped pointer used in reading from the Torah. “I will take a seat in the sanctuary and enjoy the service led by Rabbi Gruenberg.”
The Conservative synagogue Pivo is bequeathing to Gruenberg is a very different place than it was in 2003 when Pivo began.
“The congregation had a tough time the year before I arrived,” he said. “Membership was dropping and there was a feeling of malaise. The building itself was too small. High Holy Day services, for example had to be held in a local middle school due to space constraints.”
However, things started to turn around as membership stabilized and eventually grew from a low of 225 families to the current 300 families.
This enabled the congregation to mount a major capital campaign to double the size of the facility, said Pivo.
The addition was dedicated in May 2008 and included a new sanctuary, social hall, and kitchen. The capacity of the parking lot was also increased.
“Now the synagogue is able to serve the congregants in a more complete way,” he said. “Also, we have sponsored events that are open to the whole community.”
These included Sing for the Cure, a concert to raise money for cancer research, and a talk by Bob Woodruff, the ABC newsman who was critically injured in Iraq.
Pivo, 45, is moving to Congregation Beth Judea in Long Grove, Ill. Although he doesn’t take credit for the turnaround in the shul’s fortunes, he is responsible for a lot of it, said Randall Flager of New Hope, Pa., the congregation’s copresident.
“Not only does he have a strong sense of commitment to the community, he also challenged us intellectually,” Flager told NJJN. “We will miss him, his wife Lisa, and their children, Celia, Max, and Zachary, but we are very excited to welcome Rabbi Gruenberg. He is dynamic and we know he will pick up where Rabbi Pivo leaves off.”
Flager said several congregations made offers to Gruenberg, “so we were lucky to get him.”
Focus on teens
The rabbis have much in common. They were ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in the past decade (Pivo in 2000, Gruenberg in 2002) and both taught at Solomon Schechter schools. For the past seven years, Gruenberg, who grew up in Westchester County, NY, has held the pulpit at Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack, NY.
“My experience here has only been positive,” Gruenberg told NJJN. “And so much has happened during this time. I had not even been married a year when I started and now I have two children.” His wife Elissa, a corporate recruiter, works part-time. His son Sammy is six; daughter Kayla is four.
Now, Gruenberg, 38, said the family is ready to move on from a 175-family congregation to one almost twice as large.
“After looking at a lot of opportunities, we knew this was the place for us long-term. We loved Yardley the minute we saw it. And the temple community is on the precipice of doing great work.”
As for his plans for Beth El, Gruenberg said he is going to take it slow the first year.
“This is not my synagogue; it is the congregants’ synagogue. I want to learn about them and how to address their needs,” he said.
One of his priorities, however, is education with a focus on teenagers.
“They are the future of our faith and we have a finite amount of time to work with them,” he explained. “It is critical that we set them on the right path.”