The newest addition to the rabbinical community of the Northwest will be a spiritual leader who used to be a lawyer and will move here from his home in Arkansas.
No, Bill Clinton hasn’t joined the clergy but Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman has. After having practiced business law in California for five years he chose to practice a higher law and follow the calling of his heart, to which he was devoting so much of his volunteer time.
Wagman will be the next rabbi at Temple Beth Or, located in Everett, after the departure of Rabbi J. Heyman, who served there from 1998 to 2000.
A small but dedicated community of approximately 125 families whose congregation is affiliated with the Reform Movement, Temple Beth Or is housed in what is the oldest synagogue in continual use in Washington state. The temple building, built in the 1920s, is designated an Everett historical landmark.
After an extensive synthesizing of the temple’s goals and needs, the search committee identified all of the key qualities they wanted in a leader, and, according to temple president Vicki Romero, Wagman fit the bill.
“In an age when there’s a severe rabbi shortage our temple has done incredibly well,” said Romero. “I think it’s because we live in the Northwest, but our temple has had a tremendous wealth of rabbinical support. Rabbi David Fine was here for five years. Now, we were able to hire someone right away.”
Wagman, who received his rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, is originally from Los Angeles and has spent the last six years at various Hillel locations, serving college students on the campuses of Tulane University, the University of Arizona and the University of Colorado. Currently living in Hot Springs, Ark., he looks forward to making the move to the Northwest in July despite his very up-to-date running list of the natural disasters we face, including earthquakes and drought.
“I chose Temple Beth Or because they have a level of activism in terms of passionate caring for the community and for each other,” said Wagman from a hotel room in Boston where his son is applying to the Berkeley School of Music. “They thought through the search process very well. It’s exciting. Right now they are the only temple in the area but I think there are lots of Jews that haven’t affiliated yet. Hopefully we’ll see lots of congregations that will be competing for membership.”
With the explosive growth in the Pacific Northwest in the last decade, Snohomish County has an ever-increasing Jewish population, says Romero. She expects that growth to be reflected in the temple membership. She and her family have been active in Temple Beth Or since 1985 and her tenure as president started just this year.
“I see us on the brink of a very energizing period in our history,” said Romero. “We are very hopeful that we will grow with the new rabbi. He struck everyone with his interpersonal skills, his inclusiveness, tolerance, kindness. We feel that he will promote spiritual growth both personally and professionally. He’s a high energy, passionate kind of person who is genuine.”
Wagman also comes to their community with the experience and the openness toward the Christian community, interfaith couple work and conversions.
“He’s developed some wonderful relationships in Arkansas with the Christian clergy there and we’re hoping that will happen in our community,” said Romero. “He doesn’t have any negative prejudices about Christians. It seems like everything he wants in a congregation we are poised to be. It sounds like a wonderful match.”
Temple Beth Or has developed a commitment to their faith community as evidenced by the 1990 remodel of the interior sanctuary, mostly accomplished through the volunteer efforts of the membership. Romero is proud of the congregation and sees a bright future ahead.
“We are very hopeful that we will grow with the new rabbi,” added Romero. “We would eventually like to have a full-time educator and a cantor but we definitely want to maintain a sense of intimacy as we grow.”