Rabbi Ari Rosenberg has one overarching goal for his first year at Temple Sha’arey Shalom in Springfield: “I want to make sure I know who every person in the congregation is.”
So far, so good. Congregants who see his car in the parking lot have been stopping in regularly to say hello. “It’s been really welcoming,” he said, just a few weeks into his tenure. “So many people are excited to have a new person come in with fresh ideas and creative vision.”
He is also sensitive to those who may be a bit nervous at the prospect of change and has already reached out to the parents of this year’s b’nei mitzva, “so they know we will have a successful and meaningful event together.”
For him, getting to know people is not just about putting names with faces. At his former congregation, the Hevreh of Southern Berkshire in Great Barrington, Mass., where he spent the last four years, he built a youth group by spending time with teens, going to every event, even driving with the youth to retreats in the area.
“That’s real one-on-one time with the rabbi, just hanging out,” he said. “I like to be accessible; I’m here for what I can bring to the congregation, not because I have the title of rabbi.”
Rosenberg has been enjoying the relaxed atmosphere summer brings to the Reform congregation. He is settling in, getting to know his colleagues, and starting to prepare for the High Holy Days. His office already has a lived-in feeling, with books arranged on shelves, along with some framed Judaica.
The toy gorillas that fascinated his predecessor, Rabbi Josh Goldstein, who served the congregation for 35 years and is now rabbi emeritus, are gone. But animal lovers need not worry. “I’m a lion guy,” said Rosenberg, whose first name means “lion” in Hebrew. He has promised to grace the office with a few pieces from his own collection.
Rosenberg, 38, is the son of a rabbi — Aaron Rosenberg, of Temple Emanu-El in Waterford, Conn. Living life in the fishbowl is something Rosenberg has been doing, and loving, his whole life.
“I can remember showing up at synagogue at eight years old and speaking to every person there. I grew to become quite comfortable with that, and frankly, it’s part of my vision of what it means to be a rabbi,” he said. “You get to synagogue early and see who’s there; you stick around afterward and chat with the people who are there.”
‘The perfect profession’
While some rabbis look for personal outlets beyond their congregations, that just isn’t Rosenberg’s style. He’s already joined a local gym recommended by a congregant, and is used to frequenting the same restaurants as his members.
He was attracted to Sha’arey Shalom, he said, by the people as well as the size. “It’s small enough for the rabbi to get to know everyone but large enough to have vibrant programs and a thriving education program.”
The location didn’t hurt, either. He has longstanding ties to New Jersey, having spent his earliest years in New Brunswick, where his father had an internship before taking the Connecticut pulpit, and returning to attend Rutgers University, where he studied English literature. He was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Manhattan in 2008.
Although he has some ideas brewing for the congregation, he doesn’t plan to implement anything unilaterally, and certainly not in the first year.
“For a rabbi entering a congregation, particularly following a beloved rabbi of over 30 years, the first year is just to observe and get to know the congregation,” he said. “That avoids making any radical changes too quickly or doing anything rash.” Eventually, he said, he hopes to formulate a short- and long-range plan through a visioning process with the lay leadership.
He puts sermonizing, pastoral care, education, and social justice at the top of his list of strengths. That several of these play directly into the strength and history of Sha’arey Shalom is no coincidence. Education for youth and adults was one of Goldstein’s major focuses, and social justice was a signature of Goldstein’s predecessor, Rabbi Israel “Si” Dresner — who during the Civil Rights era participated in Freedom Rides to the South and served jail time for his actions on behalf of equal rights for black Americans — and whom Rosenberg had the opportunity to meet for the first time while both were volunteering with Rabbis for Human Rights in Jerusalem.
Rosenberg’s vision of the rabbinate extends beyond the walls of the synagogue. He’s already looking for opportunities to engage area Jews not affiliated with a synagogue. In Great Barrington, he frequented public concerts on Saturday afternoons to meet Jewish families and offer them a chance to make Kiddush and recite the Motzi blessing over the hallah. “It’s a way to do something different and meet people where they are,” he said.
Rosenberg, who lives in Springfield with his two children, Ezra, nine, and Maayan, five, feels at home after taking a long time to realize his calling: He was working at the University of California in Berkeley as a guidance counselor when he understood that he enjoyed the work he was doing in a local synagogue more than his “real” job.
“There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. I get to teach, socialize, and engage people in morals and values and ethics, and preserve our tradition,” he said. “I settled on the perfect profession.”