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New rabbis take reins of reimagined congregations

New rabbis take reins of reimagined congregations

Hired before the pandemic, fresh spiritual leaders prioritize meeting members, uniting community

Rabbi Ari Isenberg will assume on Aug. 1 spiritual leadership of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn. Photo Courtesy Rabbi Ari Isenberg
Rabbi Ari Isenberg will assume on Aug. 1 spiritual leadership of Congregation B’nai Israel in Millburn. Photo Courtesy Rabbi Ari Isenberg

The first Friday after Rabbi Erin Glazer moved into her Maplewood home with her young family, several members of her congregation, Temple Sinai in Summit, welcomed her while socially distanced on her front lawn. Someone brought homemade challah, another a bouquet of flowers cut from her garden, and another held a makeshift sign with “Happy Birthday” written on one side, “Welcome Rabbi Glazer” on the other.

“Who would have imagined that my first welcome would be outside in my front yard, all of us wearing masks? But OK, that’s what it was and it was beautiful,” said Glazer, 42, who spoke with NJJN in early July after one week on the job. The Reform temple’s membership is comprised of some 430 families.

Unprecedented is a word often applied to the current times, when our daily routines and Jewish communal rituals have been upended by the effects of a global pandemic. But the word can also be applied to the experience of new rabbis taking the helm of congregations this summer when sanctuary pews are empty, there’s no socializing in the halls, and personal interactions take place behind masks or in front of screens.    

Two young rabbis, Glazer and Rabbi Ari Isenberg, are replacing senior clergy who led their congregations for decades. Isenberg follows Rabbi Steven Bayar, who retired in 2019 after 30 years as spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel (CBI) in Millburn; Glazer succeeds Rabbi Stuart Gershon, who also retired in 2019 after serving 25 years at Temple Sinai. Both Bayar and Gershon now serve in the position of rabbi emeritus at their respective synagogues.

While admitting to challenges and tweaking some first-year goals, the new senior rabbis see silver linings in taking the helm during a pandemic.

“This year is really going to lend itself to being a great opportunity to build relationships with congregants on a deep level,” said Isenberg, 39. Other opportunities expressed by both rabbis include the chance to innovate and build a strong institutional foundation.

Rabbi Erin Glazer wants to get to know Temple Sinai members so that “together we can do all of that important, exciting, joyful work of being Jewish.” Photo Courtesy Rabbi Erin Glazer

“I think that this time of changing everything by necessity is actually an opportunity,” said Glazer. “I do have a lot of ideas for how I think we can add to the vibrancy and the vitality of the congregation. And I think there will come a point where we are taking a look at everything that we’re doing and all that we’re offering and asking, ‘How can we do this even better?’”

Both rabbis are fortunate in that the hiring process was complete before the March shutdowns and they were able to meet and interact with members on several occasions. Most recently, Glazer was assistant rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Manhattan, and Isenberg was rabbi for five years at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y.

While retaining their commitment to getting to know members — for Isenberg, a night out with a group of young professionals when visiting CBI was “so positively overwhelming” — the pandemic has forced a change in how that’s being done. Isenberg told NJJN in a mid-July telephone interview that he is trying to call as many members as possible during the weeks before his Aug. 1 start date.

“This is the year as a spiritual leader to be very attuned with immense compassion and generosity of spirit to what people are enduring, what people are going through, whether it’s anxiety or loneliness or other sorts of struggles, and just to be a presence for them in their lives,” he said.

Isenberg grew up in Montreal and served for many years as rabbi and cantor at Shaar Shalom Synagogue in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Part of the draw to Essex County, he said, is the “richness and vibrancy” of the Jewish community. In addition, his wife Gila is from Livingston and she grew up attending the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center. She is the daughter of Rosie and Arie Wilensky.

Glazer has dedicated hours during the week to meet with members virtually or in-person with masks and social distancing in place.

“My role as a rabbi is to get to know as many people in the community as I can and to foster that connection with the congregation and me, and with each other, so that together we can do all of that important, exciting, joyful work of being Jewish,” she said.

Temple Sinai is Glazer’s second clergy position in New Jersey: She served at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield for five years, first as assistant and then associate rabbi. Her husband, Rabbi Joseph Skloot, is a professor of history and modern Jewish thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and they’re parents of Maya, 7, and Solomon, 2.

From a conversation with Temple Sinai’s president, Ian Singer, it seems that Glazer’s priorities are in sync with those of the lay leadership.

“What we’re expecting from the rabbi is to do the very best she can during these wacky times to build her own personal relationships with the members in her own ways,” said Singer, president since July 2019 and a member since 2003.

“She’s hit the ground running,” said Singer. “I can’t imagine doing it better.”

The start of Isenberg’s tenure at CBI, a traditional, Conservative congregation, will be marked by a significant milestone: a Zoom gathering on Shabbat morning, or a “virtual community gathering,” as Isenberg refers to it.

The search committee at CBI sought a rabbi who could be a “bridge” between “honoring the traditions but also helping us move toward the future,” according to cochair Debra Nevas, whose family has been members of CBI for 17 years; and Isenberg fit the bill.

“He is just a very warm, down-to-earth person who is very caring but has that combination of being traditional but also being innovative and very creative, and invested, and engaged,” she said.

Regarding the decision to host a Zoom gathering on Shabbat, Isenberg said, “we’re going to balance tradition with ingenuity. We’re going to embrace technology as a sacred vessel in a sense through which we connect with community in moments of worship and sanctity.”

While synagogue buildings were closed over the past several months, members have become accustomed to worshipping and practicing Jewish rituals from the comforts of their homes. Glazer sees a positive takeaway.

“It’s an opportunity to reinforce the notion that being Jewish doesn’t just happen when we’re at synagogue,” she said. “That being Jewish is something that can be part of our life at home and at school, wherever we are.”

For Isenberg, this extended time at home means a renewed focus on “the holy work of chesed.”

“This is a great time to check in on neighbors, to consider the well-being of others, to put the Jewish values and lessons that we learn and that we talk about in the synagogue, to put them in practice in your homes, in our neighborhoods, in your communities, and in that way to strengthen identity.”

Perhaps unprecedented can be applied to the joy of welcoming of new spiritual leadership during an exceptionally challenging time.

“There’s a lot of excitement for a congregation to welcome a new rabbi,” said Glazer. She said the times in which we live require “an acknowledgement for all of us that it’s not what we imagined, but it’s still something worth celebrating, especially when things are hard.”

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