Temple Judea’s New Clergy ‘Team’ Ready to Play Ball


Elliott Strom, rabbi emeritus at Shir Ami, will return to the pulpit to lead High Holiday services. Cantor Paul Frimark, from Ohev Shalom, will expand his duties to lead Shabbat services on a regular basis.

The Chicago Cubs tried something that’s never been done before in baseball in 1961. Rather than have one manager and a number of coaches, the team divvied up the job and let each coach take charge for a number of games.

The experiment, which was ridiculed in most circles, lasted for two seasons, during which the Cubs went 64-90 and 59-103. No team since then has attempted to install such a system.

That’s not to suggest that the path Temple Judea of Bucks County in Furlong is taking is doomed to failure.

Simply — like what they called the Cubs’ “College of Coaches” — it’s a novel approach. And should it succeed, others may well follow.

“It’s a new model,” Temple Judea Executive Director Gail Becker said. “We’re taking advantage of the opportunity to experiment with a different way to satisfy the needs of our congregants.

“Instead of vesting everything in one rabbi, the way we’ve been operating the last 53 years, we’re bringing in a team of highly qualified professionals.”

When Rabbi Mitchell Delcau announced this spring that he was leaving after four years at the Reform congregation, the synagogue brain trust considered its options, then came up with a new strategy. Rather than hire one primary rabbi, it instead chose a clergy team comprised of experienced men and women from the area.

As a result, Elliott Strom, rabbi emeritus at Shir Ami, who retired in 2014 after 35 years, will return to the pulpit to lead High Holiday services.

Cantor Paul Frimark, who’s been in that position for nearly 20 years at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro, will expand his duties to lead Shabbat services on a regular basis, in addition to helping teach prospective Bar and Bat Mitzvah students and conducting Torah study sessions.

Leah Gilboa Hill became Temple Judea’s certified chaplain, having recently been pressed into duty due to the recent deaths of congregants.

And Rabbi Renae Toben will continue leading prayer classes for students, as well as performing interfaith, same-sex and traditional weddings.

I’m very excited about it,” said Becker of the new lineup, which will swing into full force right after Labor Day, leading up to Rosh Hashanah on Oct. 2. “It has great possibilities for us.”

It’s equally exciting and challenging for veterans Strom and Frimark, who are eager to make the transition.

“My initial reaction was I was intrigued by it,” Strom said. “I really enjoy the High Holiday liturgy and the chance to speak to people and wanted to do it again.

“The last two summers [since his retirement] have been very different. Usually, I spend the end of the summer preparing for High Holidays. But two years ago we traveled to Germany and last summer in France, which I could not have done another time in my life.”

So he’s looking forward to greeting his new congregants — and probably a few old ones who stop by.

“To me, it’s a sacred responsibility — a chance to potentially have an impact on people like no other time and no other way in the year,” he explained. “I don’t want to waste it.”

For Frimark, running Shabbat services is something he’s done periodically over the years. The difference is now he’ll be doing it on a regular basis, although Temple Judea has conducted services of late on a biweekly basis.

“In that respect, for me it’s a different job in terms of being sole clergy at a synagogue on a regular basis,” said Frimark, who became a cantor later in life, starting off as an accountant — including a nine-year stint as controller for the Jewish Exponent. “The past 20 years, I was the cantor at Ohev Shalom, but oftentimes I was the sole clergy on the bimah.

“It’s a very interesting challenge for me to be on my own, entrusted with a pulpit. I’m looking forward to it. My experience filling in at Ohev Shalom I feel has prepared me to assume responsibility at Temple Judea. So far, they’ve been very welcoming.”

When Strom takes over during the High Holidays — assisted by cantorial soloist Kristin Goodkin — Frimark will turn his attention to youth services, incorporating not only students but young families. That will be his warmup for his other regular duties — working with preschoolers and B’nai Mitzvah students on their D’var Torahs.

He concedes that what Temple Judea is doing is a bit different.

“This is something you might say is a different model approach,” said the 64-year-old Frimark. “If you take all the responsibilities and give them to different people, it doesn’t become overburdening on one person. When you’re the sole clergy you can be there morning, noon and night.

“This will enable all the people who are part of the model to serve the synagogue, as well as conduct their lives comfortably.”

It also will enable Strom to put some time and thought into his sermons. As he’s learned over the years, sometimes those plans go out the window in the course of the world events.

“In September 2001 I didn’t have a sermon ready about 9/11, which came a week before Rosh Hashanah,” Strom recalled. “Every rabbi in the world had to rewrite his sermon. And I remember when Anwar Sadat was shot dead [just before Yom Kippur in 1981], I had to change it.”

Besides that, he’ll be preaching to a new congregation, some of whom may value their Judaism less, which concerns him.

“For one thing, the world is a more frightening place, so I think people may need what the High Holidays can offer more than ever,” said Strom, whose son, Joshua, is assistant rabbi at Congregation B’nai Yisrael in Armonk, N.Y. “It’s also a world where synagogue membership has become more optional.

“What that means to rabbis is we have to do an even better job reminding people why they do need to be a part of synagogue life. You have to prove to people who might rather not be there, ‘You have to hear what the rabbi had to say.’ ”

And during these politically charged times do it in an impartial way.  “I think it’s an abuse for a rabbi to speak in partisan terms, but there are issues that we need to be addressing that are not about one party of one candidate,” continued Strom.  “It’s one of the hardest lines to walk, but any rabbi worth his or her salt has to focus on these issues.

“The last thing in the world I want to do is walk over that line, but I don’t feel any pressure.  I just want to do a good job.”

If he does, and Frimark does and so do all the rest, then maybe Temple Judea and its “college of rabbis” will really be onto something.

Contact: jmarks@jewishexponent.com; 215-238-0729


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