Rabbi Abe Friedman is joining Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel as its next lead rabbi, which he says is a “dream come true.”
To hear Rabbi Abe Friedman tell it, he has had a “long-term crush” on Philadelphia.
As a child, he visited places such as the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall, and he returned to the city on a trip with USY (United Synagogue Youth). Later, he interned at the Germantown Jewish Centre in 2007.
The city had always seemed to him a “fascinating place” that had a lot to offer, he said.
He will have plenty of time to explore those offerings, now that he is joining Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel as its next lead rabbi, which he says is a “dream come true.”
“I’ve always loved America, and the richness of history in our country,” he said, “and there is a rich history of American Judaism in Philadelphia.”
After almost two years of searching, BZBI will be expanding its clergy when it officially welcomes Friedman in August.
Friedman, 35, comes to the Conservative synagogue in Rittenhouse Square from Chicago, where he served as rabbi for Anshe Emet Synagogue for five years.
Born in Atlanta, Friedman studied classical civilization and religion at Boston University, where he met his wife, Rebecca Krasner. After living in Manhattan for two years, he got a taste of the West Coast by attending the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University in Los Angeles — where Stone also went when it was known as the University of Judaism — and concurrently received his MBA in nonprofit management.
Five years later, after receiving his training and degrees — and spending a year in Israel — he and Rebecca moved to Chicago, where they resided until his appointment to BZBI.
The couple has three young children: Odelia, 7, Azzi, 3, and Yonah, 4 months. Yonah was born on the day he was offered the job at BZBI, which, he said with a laugh, certainly made for “a big day.”
Daniel Eisenstadt, a longtime member of the synagogue as well as serving on its board, was a co-chair of the search committee and is excited to be welcoming Friedman into the community.
“I think Rabbi Friedman has the intellectual chops and the experience and ability as a teacher — someone who has enormous thirst for learning himself — someone who knows how to connect with people,” Eisenstadt said.
To test those chops, Friedman led Shabbat services at the synagogue for a weekend in January, acting as senior rabbi to get a sense of the role he will be playing come August. He met with many congregants and enthused about the experience.
“People have just been so warm and welcoming and inviting. I couldn’t have dreamed up a more welcoming community to be a part of,” he said.
Connecting with people and teaching and learning with them is part of what made Friedman want to become a rabbi in the first place.
After serving as a counselor for a few years at Camp Ramah in Palmer, Mass., he started to think about what he wanted to do. He asked himself what it was that he enjoyed doing in his life. His experience as a counselor allowed him the introduction to teaching and gave him an idea.
“I loved teaching Torah, I loved being part of building Jewish community and being part of a mentoring relationship,” he said. If he wanted those things, he said, becoming a rabbi was the clear career path.
He had toyed with the idea of becoming a rabbi years before that, but wondered if it was something he could do seriously. He says that part of what got him into the field — the teaching and mentoring — still sustains him today.
The search committee formed back in 2013 to find the congregation’s next lead rabbi. Stone has been the rabbi for 27 years.
Stone, who is “66 and a half,” decided it was time to leave, but is confident he is leaving the congregation in good hands with Friedman.
“I’m very excited and happy he is coming in,” Stone said. “He’s young and enthusiastic and very smart. I expect the changes are going to be good ones.”
Stone will continue to grow the Mussar leadership program at BZBI and do some speaking engagements around the country as well as work on more publications in his free time.
Additionally, Rabbi Yosef Goldman was hired in 2014 as assistant rabbi and will be joining the expanded clergy full-time. Goldman and Friedman will also be joining Cantor Sharon Grainer, who has been with BZBI since 2006.
After continuous rounds of interviews and meeting with many candidates, the committee still hadn’t felt like they found their next leader. Rabbi Stone agreed to stay on staff until the right person came along.
The key ingredient in the rabbinical search was “fit,” said Eisenstadt, especially given the growth in demand for programming the synagogue has been facing in recent years and the number of people not only staying in Center City, but moving in from the suburbs to live there.
“We were looking for a fit between a community and a rabbi,” Eisenstadt said. “We absolutely wanted to find a rabbi who had the interest in learning and teaching because that’s part of the heritage Rabbi Stone leaves behind.”
He added that there is a growing demand for synagogues and Jewish community in Center City, particularly among non-members, as the demographic in the area changes.
“Having this many clergy will allow us to create more of a sense of community and more engaging programs for that Center City Jewish community that has grown,” he said, citing empty nesters as another growing population in the community.
Last year, he said, BZBI held a service on erev Rosh Hashanah and least 500 people attended — but only a few hundred of those attendees were actually members of the synagogue; the rest were unaffiliated. He said they plan on doing that again this year.
To face this increasing demand of people looking for a connection to the Jewish community, finding a rabbi who could engage with members and non-members alike was crucial.
“With the demographic changes, we wanted to find a rabbi or rabbinic team who could really reach out to youths in Center City in myriad ways that one might not have done years ago,” he said.
Friedman seems to fit the bill. “I love people,” Friedman said, smiling. “I am excited to get to know new people and how did they come to find BZBI.”
He worked with the synagogue to schedule smaller meet-and-greet activities throughout August because it was important to him to meet everyone, he said.
This includes a potluck picnic in Schuylkill River Park Aug. 9, a happy hour event at Rembrandt’s Aug. 12, and a Starbucks meet-up Aug. 20.
He likes to gather in smaller settings, which he says is necessary in order to really create personal and individual relationships.
“It’s something we need today,” he said. “People are looking for relationships you can’t build in Kiddush with hundreds of people at a time.”
The biggest challenge so far for Friedman has been familiarizing himself with the BZBI community from a distance. He has visited the synagogue for three Shabbats since January, most recently in the beginning of June, and said he was glad to be able to meet with people face to face and become “100 percent focused on BZBI.”
The congregation is anticipating seeing what Friedman will bring to the 175-year-old synagogue.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the level of energy and passion they are going to bring to this job,” Eisenstadt said of Friedman and Goldman. “That energy level has an infectious quality that I hope infuses a level of energy and excitement into the BZBI community and wider Jewish community for ways we can explore what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century.”
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