Rabbis Beth and Jonathan Singer know they’re taking a risk. When the co-senior rabbis of Temple Beth Am pack up and leave Seattle at the end of June, they’ll be moving from their large synagogue community to one that’s more than double the size. For a couple that has made a point of building relationships with as many of their temple’s members as possible, starting from scratch in a new community will be a daunting task.
“We have prided ourselves, even though we’re a fairly large synagogue, on being very personal and accessible,” said Jonathan Singer. “Learning how to do that, and to share with other clergy to ensure that people feel connected, is going to be a challenge for us.”
The synagogue the couple will be moving to, Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco, is an urban temple in the center of the city with about 2,000 families and four rabbis already on staff.
“We’ve been able, at Beth Am, to create a serious liberal community, where we don’t have privatized B’nai Mitzvah services, for example, but the community comes,” Jonathan Singer said. “Those are the areas that that synagogue is looking for our help. They want to build a better sense of community.”
The Singers weren’t looking to leave Beth Am, but the confluence of relatives nearby and the invitation to interview from Emanu-El’s retiring senior rabbi, who had visited Beth Am earlier this year for a family lifecycle event, created something of a perfect storm.
It’s a risk, “but the fact that my family is there, I can’t think of any other congregation I would leave to go do this for. They’ve invited us to try and create some of what we’ve created here,” said Beth Singer. “It’s scary and it’s exciting.”
The Singers have spent the past 18 years building upon Beth Am’s foundation as “a place that’s serious but also joyful and is committed to social justice and is welcoming,” said Jonathan Singer. “It was important to me to not make a New Jersey synagogue — to work hard against the entropy that’s always there, to turn into a place that honors only certain people, or that is cold, that’s hierarchical in some ways, but to make sure that this was a place that would be intellectually engaging and spiritually inspiring.”
Beth Singer said they spend a lot of time making sure they don’t get stagnant.
“We’re always monitoring that,” she said. “It’s just ongoing work to maintain your authenticity.”
Beth Am’s employees are charged with the same mission.
“We run our staff as a team approach,” Jonathan Singer said. “We encourage people to work together and share and say what’s broken and needs to be fixed.”
The staff will have two new rabbis to work with come August 1. The congregation voted to approve the hiring of Rabbi Ilene Bogosian through June 2014 as an interim until a permanent senior rabbi is selected, and of Jason Levine, who will receive his ordination next month, as Beth Am’s assistant rabbi.
The Singers have plenty of accomplishments they can point to — the synagogue’s explosive growth and building the largest Jewish school of any kind in the Pacific Northwest, as two examples — but Beth Singer said that much of her pride and inspiration in Temple Beth Am has come from members with big ideas.
“We do a lot of the midwifing that makes those things actually happen,” she said. “It was a congregant who came to us and said, ‘I’d really like to see Tent City in our parking lot,’” citing one example.
Jonathan Singer also cited the temple’s work on gay rights, in particular many of its members’ work to get marriage equality passed last November.
“We worked hard on that, and I’m proud of this synagogue,” he said. “But 16 years ago, when I took that stand, it was a much less popular stand to take, and it was this synagogue board made up of librarians at the university and small business people who could have fired me, and they didn’t. Ultimately we took the stands together, and I think that’s part of why Beth Am has done so well.”
When the Singers prepared to move to Seattle 18 years ago, their mentors actually told them they should stay on the East Coast, because nobody here wanted to be Jewish.
“I think we’ve proved them wrong,” Jonathan Singer said.
“We started out in synagogues in Westchester [N.Y.], and Beth Am invited Rabbi Jonathan to be the senior rabbi. It was a lot smaller, and there was no job for me at Beth Am. It was really a risk for us to do that,” said Beth Singer. “But we went ahead and felt optimistic that things would work out.”
Beth Singer initially found part-time rabbinical work at Temple De Hirsch Sinai before becoming associate rabbi at Beth Am. The temple elevated her to co-senior rabbi five years ago, and the two have led the synagogue since.
“I always thought I would be here for five years and I would leave and go on because it was a smaller place,” said Jonathan Singer. “It kept growing and changing, so about every five years I felt like I was at a new institution. With the growth you have to change how you work and how you manage.”
Beth Am had about 380 families in 1995, compared to 900 today.
“It was a very warm, small group of people who made up the core of Beth Am. There were no Saturday morning services unless there was a Bar or Bat Mitzvah,” Jonathan Singer said.
Today you’d be hard pressed to find a weekend, excepting July, where usually two kids are celebrating that rite of passage.
As they prepare to leave, the Singers believe their home for nearly two decades is in good hands.
“Rabbis come and go, but the congregation’s a really strong, healthy, congregation,” said Beth Singer. “I believe that Temple Beth Am is going to have this unexpected, unanticipated opportunity to grow in a way that the congregation otherwise wouldn’t have grown, and it could be a very positive thing.”