Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series about the large turnover in leadership within metropolitan Seattle’s Jewish community. This issue, JTNews will focus on the synagogues. The next will focus on our local agencies.
When the announcement came two weeks ago that Temple Beth Am’s senior rabbinical team of Jonathan and Beth Singer would be leaving Seattle at the end of June to lead a synagogue in San Francisco, it sent a shockwave through both the Reform congregation and the Seattle area’s organized Jewish community. In part it was because the rabbis have been so involved in the area’s Jewish life, but also because it’s yet one more organization of the many in Seattle that needs to find new leadership.
Beth Am is at the start of its search process, as are Bellevue’s Temple B’nai Torah and the Seward Park neighborhood’s Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath, to find permanent replacements on their pulpits. In the meantime, Sephardic Bikur Holim, also in Seward Park, hopes it has completed its search for a new rabbi. Two other Seattle congregations, Temple De Hirsch Sinai and Congregation Beth Shalom, are conducting searches to replace their departing executive directors, who run the day-to-day tasks of operating a synagogue.
At the same time, three of the area’s major community agencies, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, Jewish Family Service of Greater Seattle, and the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle hope to have new leadership in place by summer.
“The word bittersweet is one we’re using frequently,” said Elizabeth Asher, president of Temple Beth Am’s board. “There’s a lot of emotion, because these rabbis have given us a gift of feeling very personally connected to them.”
But the three weeks since the board was notified of the Singers’ impending departure have also been a whirlwind of activity: The Reform-based Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), which is helping to facilitate the search, had a deadline of this week to receive the application forms for an interim rabbi while the search for a permanent replacement gets underway. That was in addition to the temple’s board needing to architect a plan to develop criteria for choosing a rabbi before it actually engages its search committee, as well as personally responding to the many members in the 900-family congregation who had questions and concerns about the transition.
“It’s an intense time, but we’re not scrambling, we’re not disorganized, we just have a lot to do in a short period of time,” Asher said. “We have to ensure there are seamless transitions.”
The biggest concern has been for the families of Bar and Bat Mitzvah kids whose ceremonies are scheduled during the summer and fall. A letter to congregants stated that “we will make sure that we maintain rabbinic coverage during this time for all scheduled life cycle events, especially b’nai mitzvah.”
Though both of the temple’s senior rabbis are leaving, Asher said the search getting underway will likely be to hire one rabbi.
“It seems to make sense that we first get our senior rabbinic position in place,” she said. “That person, I suspect, will want to have some input into an associate rabbi.”
Temple B’nai Torah, a Reform congregation in Bellevue similar in size to Beth Am, has had a few more months to begin preparations for the impending retirement of its longtime senior rabbi, James Mirel, in June 2014. Mirel will stay on as rabbi emeritus.
A search committee has been formed, and it has already begun planning congregational meetings to ascertain what its members want and need in a senior rabbi before passing that information on to CCAR, which will conduct this search as well.
“The meetings will probably be taking place in April, May and June,” said Shana Aucsmith, B’nai Torah’s board president. “We’ll be collecting the information to be right on schedule [for] what is considered the normal and best process.”
B’nai Torah’s associate rabbi, Yohanna Kinberg, who has been with the temple for nearly 10 years, was invited to apply for the senior rabbi position and has done so.
“We’re glad about that,” Aucsmith said. “That’s something we were hoping for.”
Kinberg told JTNews she entered the rabbinate with the idea of “being with people in their lives for the long haul.
“I would love to stay at TBT,” she added. “I want to see the kids who are being born now do their B’nai Mitzvah,” and even perform their weddings.
Kinberg’s husband, Seth Goldstein, is rabbi at Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia, and she said the family is committed to staying in the area regardless of the outcome.
Aucsmith said the temple’s board and committee felt that engaging in the full hiring process would mean both the congregation and Kinberg can ensure they are a proper fit.
The rabbinical searches in Seward Park have come with more intensity. After Sephardic Bikur Holim decided in 2011 not to renew the contract of Rabbi Simon Benzaquen, a search committee embarked upon a year-long search for a rabbi to lead the Turkish Sephardic congregation.
The synagogue’s board president, Menachem Maimon, wrote in SBH’s April newsletter that an offer had been extended to a rabbi, though a contract was not yet signed. Maimon told JTNews the search is still underway.
Bikur Cholim Machzikay Hadath’s board also declined to renew the contract of its rabbi, Moshe Kletenik, necessitating the search for a new rabbi of the Pacific Northwest’s largest Ashkenazic Orthodox synagogue.
Kletenik will finish with the congregation this June, and board president Chuck Broches hopes to have a new rabbi in place by July 2014. The rabbi at a shul like BCMH plays a much more central part in the lives of its members, Broches noted.
“The rabbi plays an important role in providing halachic counsel on all sorts of things, ranging from kashrut to how the mikvah is operated,” he said, “a whole span of issues.”
Broches has been in touch with the Orthodox Union, the Rabbinical Council of America (of which Kletenik is a past president), and Yeshiva University, which has a rabbinic placement service.
With Passover finished, a committee appointed to create what Broches called a visioning process will be getting to work.
“We haven’t taken a real serious look at ourselves in 19 years, since Rabbi Kletenik arrived,” he said. “Our shul, like every other organization in town, has changed remarkably since then.”
The process of self-examination is one that all of these synagogues have appeared to embrace. Considering the long tenures of the rabbis being replaced — ranging from 16 years for Beth Singer and 18 for Jonathan Singer to 28 and 29 years for Benzaquen and Mirel, respectively — acknowledging the way each congregation has grown and changed over the years appears to be a crucial and mandatory step.
At B’nai Torah, Aucsmith said the search committee is embracing the opportunity to reach out to members to find out what they want and need in a rabbi.
“We’re really striving for it to be an inclusive process,” she said. “We want to get input from different segments of the community — a very engaging process and transparent process — so people feel they are a part of it.”
Asher of Temple Beth Am noted that while the rabbis do lead the congregation, the Singers tried to allow Beth Am to grow as a community that could transcend the rabbinical presence and make room for someone new should the need arise, as is happening now.
“We are looking at this as an opportunity to really reach even further and to redefine ourselves in some way to continue to grow,” Asher said. “That’s pretty exciting, actually. There’s an exciting element to this opportunity for us as well.”