Like the congregation he now serves as head rabbi — having had the “interim” tag removed from his title — Glenn Ettman has seen the light.
That it’s pointed him to Reform Congregation Or Ami in Lafayette Hill after a long and winding road that included stops in New York, Los Angeles, Bend, Ore., and Boca Raton might seem unlikely.
But for Ettman, who loved performing while growing up in Simsbury, Conn., and once seriously thought about becoming an actor, this is the perfect stage: a shul whose name means “light of the nation.”
“I’d been told before I came here, ‘we are a family of friends,’” said Ettman, who left his post as campus Hillel rabbi in Florida’s Broward and Palm Beach counties to come here last July as interim rabbi. “And that is 100 percent the truth.
“This is a community where everybody treats one another like family. There’s a love, appreciation and understanding of being together unparalleled in other communities. And I’ve had experience with a lot of communities.”
But being in suburban Philadelphia seems somehow fitting for a man who not only grew up with an appreciation of the arts and culture — and once taught an Or Ami adult education class on the history of American musical theater — but of history.
“This is similar to where I grew up, with a lot of Colonial influences,” said Ettman, who assumed the full-time position in February. “Simsbury was the first town where the Connecticut Constitution was written.
“It became the model for the U.S. Constitution. The whole area, like here, is Revolutionary War-based. We were able then to rally against oppression and we rose up — just like they sing about in Hamilton. I’m fascinated by this area.”
He’s also fascinated by this time of year on the Jewish calendar. While the seder nights of Passover may be over, the meaning of the holiday lasts through the eight days and beyond.
“This is a holiday about the challenge as a human being to move forward and find a moment of personal liberation,” said Ettman, who graduated from Brandeis University with honors in theater and Judaic studies, then earned a master’s degree in performance and performance studies from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, before realizing Judaism was a greater passion. “When I was in rabbinic school, after we’d break the middle matzo and hide the afikomen, we used to pass the other side around.
“Everyone would talk about a moment in the past year of feeling liberated or something they hoped to be liberated from in the coming year.
“Passover is a reminder that we all set out on a journey every day. When Moses started his journey, he didn’t necessarily know where he was going or that it would take 40 years. But he created a group that followed him and they created more journeys.”
While those journeys took place thousands of years ago, the example they set is still relevant today, Ettman said.
“Moses was a revolutionary,” he said. “He believed he was around to make a change — and he did. But the great success of Moses was that he was a leader who begat more leaders. We can learn a lot from Passover about how to overcome the obstacles we face.”
Ettman faced plenty of obstacles going from interim to permanent rabbi.
“It’s a difficult process to make it permanent,” he said, explaining how a petition has to be filed through the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), then approved by the congregation. “They went through an exhaustive search and I was part of that. At the end of the search, they told me that what they were looking for happened to be sitting right there.
“We have 350 families. It’s considered midsize by the CCAR. There’s a lot of potential and renewed energy here. It’s exciting to know about the growth of Or Ami. We’ve been around 70 years.”
For Ettman, who lives just around the corner from Or Ami with his 2½-year-old daughter, Shoshana, the embrace of Judaism may have come a little later than it did for many of his counterparts, but it arrived with no less fervor.
“The fascinating thing is that theater is what I first wanted to pursue,” the 40-year-old Ettman said, “but when I went into the rabbinate, I realized my love of Judaism is found in the stories and the storytelling.
“I’ve been in the rabbinate 11 years. I’m 40, with a young child. While I’m on the younger side, I have an old soul. I know the way people connect is through listening to the stories, regardless of the religion.
“Gone are the days of a generation moving to an area and joining the temple. So there have to be other ways of developing that deep-rooted connection.”
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