Interim rabbi helps shul imagine future

Interim rabbi helps shul imagine future

Jon Cutler will lead the ‘conversation’ at Cong. Beth Hatikvah

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Jon Cutler is interested in transitions and in making an impact.

So it is perhaps no surprise that Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit hired him as its interim rabbi as they search for a permanent successor to longtime leader Rabbi Amy Small.

All three of his current roles — as interim rabbi, as United States Naval Reserves chaplain, and as a hospice chaplain — are about transitions: from the material to the spiritual, from life to death, from civilian to military life and back again.

Cutler, 57, a captain in the U.S. Naval Reserves, has served in Iraq, Djibouti, and in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait during Desert Storm. A resident of Flowertown, Pa., he helped found Darkaynu in nearby Warrington, Pa., which he describes as an informal havura in the mold of cross-denominational independent congregations like Ikar or Romemu. With about 50 families, it “meets my own spiritual needs,” said Cutler, who was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Seminary in Wyncote, Pa., and holds a doctorate in ministry, pastoral studies, and counseling from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

He will spend Thursday through Sunday at Beth Hatikvah, and be available other times when needed. He will also to continue his work as a hospice chaplain at the Abramson Center for Jewish Life in North Wales, Pa.

American Jewry in general is in transition, he said in a recent interview.

“The old paradigms are not working. We’re just functioning, not envisioning,” he said.

He looks at models like the Washington, DC, synagogue known as Sixth & I, which sees itself as a cultural center for Jews and non-Jews alike.

“Sixth & I is not seeing the synagogue as a Friday- and Saturday-only venture. It offers speakers, musicians, jazz concerts all week long,” he said. “The model is to just bring people in and open events to the whole community.… This model broadens and opens up the synagogue to a more vibrant customer base.”

He sees his job as helping Beth Hatikvah congregants envision what new model would be right for their synagogue. On Nov. 10, he started the process with a congregational conversation based on Sacred Strategies: Transforming Synagogues from Functional to Visionary, by Isa Aron, Steven M. Cohen, Lawrence Hoffman, and Ari Y. Kelman.

“When the new rabbi comes in, the congregation will already have done the envisioning,” he said. “The congregation will be empowered because that vision will not be imposed on them.”

Asked what he’s most looking forward to, he said, “A year from now, I will go back to my quiet life in Flowertown, Pa., and see where the congregation is, and I will know that I had an impact.”

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