Next fall’s High Holiday services will be radically different in the Pacific Northwest. Four rabbis from the community’s largest synagogues have announced they are stepping down from their bimahs by this summer and one other rabbi has already moved on.
Many members of Herzl-Ner Tamid Conservative Congregation on Mercer Island were surprised to learn late last week that both their rabbis —David Rose and Lisa Gelber — will be leaving when their contracts expire this spring. Rabbi Scott Sperling announced his departure from Temple De Hirsch Sinai earlier this month. And the senior rabbi of the Pacific Northwest’s largest Reform congregation, Earl Starr, announced his intention to retire from Temple De Hirsch Sinai about a year ago. Rabbi Yamin Levy of Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, a Sephardic Orthodox shul in Seward Park, departed last fall to head a day school on the East Coast.
All three synagogues are in various stages of recovery. Ezra Bessaroth has been interviewing rabbi candidates. Temple De Hirsch Sinai has hired a new senior rabbi, who will start work later this year. Herzl-Ner Tamid’s leadership is just beginning its search process.
In addition to the rabbis who are leaving Seattle, the Puget Sound area has gained several new congregational rabbis this year. Rabbi Shifra Penzias is the first rabbi to lead Congregation Kol Shalom, a Reform temple on Bainbridge Island (see related story on Page 11A). Rabbi Drorah O’Donnell Setel is Kadima’s first rabbi in its 23-year history and she also serves part-time as the rabbi at Congregation Kol Ami, a Reform synagogue in Woodinville. Temple B’nai Torah, a Reform congregation in Bellevue, added a second rabbi to its clergy team, Rabbi Michael Latz, this past fall.
Neither Rose, who has been the spiritual leader of Herzl-Ner Tamid for 13 years, nor Gelber, who has been at the synagogue for 5 years, have decided where their next job will take them.
The Herzl-Ner Tamid board of directors did not renew Rose’s contract after they failed to reach agreement on efforts to renegotiate the terms of his employment. Gelber’s decision to leave was based on personal and professional reasons and she chose to leave when her contract expires this spring. According to a letter to the congregation from Richard Du Bey, president of the board of directors, Gelber’s decision to leave was unrelated to Rose’s departure.
“The circumstances that led Herzl-Ner Tamid’s Board of Directors to make a change in the senior rabbi position have evolved over the last several months,” Du Bey wrote. “Rabbi Rose asked the Board of Directors to re-negotiate portions of his existing contract. While progress was made addressing some of Rabbi Rose’s concerns, disagreements later emerged around others. Sadly, for all of us, the many meetings, discussions and careful deliberations failed to resolve all of them.”
Rose said on Tuesday that he will be working through the month of May, but he probably won’t leave the Seattle area until late June or July.
“I’ve had a wonderful 13 years here. I’m really satisfied and very proud of the things I’ve accomplished with the staff and the lay leadership of Herzl and the leadership of the Jewish community, and I’m going to miss Seattle,” he said.
Rose’s departure will have repercussions all over the community. His wife, Natalie Merkur-Rose, has played a significant role at Jewish Family Service as the director of its family education and outreach efforts. His mother-in-law, Harriett Merkur, is a beloved teacher at Temple B’nai Torah. Their children, Avigail and Zev, will be missed by their friends at the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle.
“Over these years, I have been deeply involved in the lives of countless Herzl-Ner Tamid families. In times of joy and sorry, we have strengthened each other,” Rose wrote in a letter to synagogue members. “I have been privileged to help shape the Jewish lives of hundreds of people, young and adult. Being part of people’s lives from birth, through B’nai Mitzvah into marriage has brought me tremendous joy. Teaching Jewish tradition at these times of joy and sharing Jewish comfort in times of sorrow has reminded me daily of the wisdom of our heritage.”
In her letter to the congregation, Gelber said, “I write this letter with a deep sense of emotion. Almost five years ago, this community welcomed me with open arms, making me a part of the synagogue family. We have learned together, prayed together, mourned together and celebrated together… I am confident that these positive memories will serve as a source of strength to me as I continue on my rabbinic path and spiritual journey.”
In explaining her departure, she wrote, “As is not atypical for a second rabbi, I have decided not to renew my contract when my term expires at HNT so that I may expand my rabbinate in another community. At this time in my life, I must focus on my needs as a whole person, making choices to enrich myself both as an individual and as a spiritual leader.”
Du Bey said the board of directors has already begun to form a rabbi search committee.
On Aug. 1, Sperling will start his new job as regional director of the Mid-Atlantic Region of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the Reform movement. When he and his family move to Washington, D.C., it will be the first time in 25 years that he has moved off the West Coast. In addition to his four years as associate rabbi, and seven years before that as a part-timer at Temple De Hirsch Sinai, Sperling will be missed by the friends he made and the students he influenced during years of teaching at the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle and the Community High School of Jewish Studies.
Temple De Hirsch Sinai’s senior rabbi, Earl Starr, has led the Reform congregation for more than 30 years. He came to Temple De Hirsch Sinai in 1970, when he took over the pulpit from the synagogue’s long-time religious leader, Rabbi Raphael Levine. The synagogue’s next rabbi will be Daniel Weiner from Harrisburg, Penn.