When Rabbis Beth and Jonathan Singer announced they would be leaving their positions as co-senior rabbis of Temple Beth Am earlier this year, it left this North Seattle synagogue in the unenviable position of having to find not one new rabbi, but two. Following multiple discussions within the synagogue community and with the Union for Reform Judaism’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, Beth Am introduced its two new rabbis at the beginning of August. One plans to stick around for a while. The other hopes she won’t.
Rabbi Jason Levine, Beth Am’s new assistant rabbi, graduated from Hebrew Union College this past spring.
“For me, as a new rabbi, it’s an extremely supportive place,” Levine told JTNews. “People so far have been very receptive to a new rabbi who’s still learning on the job, learning the ropes as I go.”
Levine, a born-and-bred Midwesterner — he grew up in St. Louis and Cleveland — originally intended to become a scientist. He didn’t actually feel the call of the rabbinate until he went to college.
“I got involved in a lot of community-building activities, social justice activities, a lot of interfaith activities,” he said. “All the things that I love doing in my life are the tasks and roles of the rabbi, and they just melded perfectly together.”
Where he particularly found joy in the idea of becoming a rabbi was the idea that “I could work with people, help them during the difficult parts of their lives, the celebratory parts of their lives, help them grow up together, [and] help them enjoy life together,” he said.
While many of his fellow rabbinical students stayed relatively close to HUC’s Cincinnati campus, “I was keeping my options open as wide as possible,” Levine said. “I love traveling, I love trying out new places, so geography was not limiting for me.”
Among other options were returning to Hillel to work with students, but Levine said he doesn’t see a big difference between that and what he’s doing at Beth Am.
“One of the things that I’m happy about here is this sense of curiosity, this sense of community building, this sense of responsibility to the world, which is so passionate in the Hillel community,” he said, “along with the sense of informality and just sheer fun.”
On the flipside of Levine is Rabbi Ilene Bogosian, whose role as intentional interim senior rabbi is to be just that: Interim. Bogosian had long dreamed of the rabbinate long before women were allowed ordination. And because women — “they called them girls in those days,” she said — did not go to seminary, Bogosian instead became a psychiatric social worker.
“I’ve since discovered that a lot of the women of my generation who had a calling for the rabbinate wound up in psychology one way or another,” she said.
But she reached a turning point in her career, and someone suggested she actually go through with rabbinical school. Upon ordination, she spent 10 years at a Hillel in the Boston area, but decided she wanted to work with a broader population. That work included chaplaincies in long- and short-term care facilities. Then the Reform movement’s placement director suggested interim work.
“I was very skeptical at the time, I think partly because of my psychiatry background,” Bogosian said. “And here I am, nine years later, still doing this work, and getting feedback from people that there’s something about my presence and the way I work with congregations when they’re in transition that is very useful, very helpful.”
Rabbi Deborah Prinz, who oversees CCAR’s intentional interim rabbi program, told JTNews that “the need is very clear for there to be a transitional time for the congregation to regroup and recover and reassess what it is and what it wants to be under the circumstances in the intentional interim period.”
Due in part to her social work background, Bogosian has a “great skillset in this area,” Prinz said. “We turn to her as one of the veterans and really skilled people in the field.”
The intentional interim program began because leadership within the URJ and CCAR became concerned about congregations making mistakes in their rabbinical searches.
“Congregations that didn’t allow themselves this time and the expertise of an intentional rabbi would often find themselves having an unintentional interim,” Prinz said. “The rabbi would end up staying for a year or two instead of a longer time.”
While Bogosian has her normal rabbinical duties — leading services, comforting bereaved families, teaching courses — she also has the role of providing guidance for the temple’s rabbinical search committee.
“There’s an additional layer of the awareness of helping the congregation through this huge change, and it varies from congregation to congregation as to what it may or may not need for that intentional interim period,” Prinz said.
Because she is by design not allowed to be in the running for the permanent position, Bogosian knows she will hand her reins to a new rabbi at the end of the one-year process, and will also help the new rabbi transition onto his or her pulpit.
“The most challenging part of my year is the part when I have to say goodbye,” she said, “because part of the integrity of my work is I have to disappear, for the most part, at the end of the year so that people can bond with their new rabbi.”
Having a home base, a husband and strong support network, and the kids out of the house makes her transitions much easier, she said.
Elizabeth Asher, Beth Am’s board president, said the decision to go with an interim rabbi and assistant rabbi was the right one.
“We’re both learning from each other,” she said. “Out of that learning we’re both growing and I think the temple is on a steady course.”
One thing both Levine and Bogosian have found is that their new synagogue is an active, busy place. “There’s so much energy here. People are so engaged and committed,” Bogosian said. “There’s a higher proportion than in many places of people with core levels of involvement in this community, and I enjoy seeing that.”
“To find a place like Beth Am is a rare thing indeed, where there are so many things happening at once, and people are so open to each other,” Levine said. “I could not think of a place I’d rather be to start my rabbinical career.”