Two area synagogues — Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood and Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, New Jersey — have reached the final stage of their searches for new rabbis.
Both Conservative congregations will welcome their final candidates for Sabbath weekends in January. The prospective rabbis will mingle with congregants, look at the temple’s religious schools, attend services and deliver sermons. To be fair to the candidates, synagogue leaders did not want to mention their names.
Rabbi Neil Cooper, 68, is retiring from Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in June after three decades as synagogue leader. Rabbi Aaron Krupnick, 60, is stepping down in the summer after 27 years of guiding Congregation Beth El.
Regarding their decisions to retire, both men pretty much said what Cooper said in August: “It’s time.” Krupnick further explained that, at 60, he didn’t feel like he could see the future of Judaism like he could in his 30s.
“Jewish life needs to evolve,” Krupnick said then.
According to Beth Hillel-Beth El President Barbara Bookman, one of the challenges moving forward is figuring out the new, post-pandemic normal.
How much does a synagogue do in person versus over Zoom? Also, how much of its programming can be a combination of the two?
These are questions that will help drive Jewish life in the next generation of rabbinical leaders.
“Things are different. We’ve had a Zoom minyan where that’s been very successful,” Bookman said. “I’m not sure if it’s going to be as easy for the morning minyan to get people to come back in person, instead of over Zoom.”
Stuart Sauer, the president of Beth El, echoed a similar theme.
During the pandemic, the Voorhees temple used virtual services and programs to remain accessible to congregants who had moved to Florida or the Jersey shore. Based on that success, synagogue leaders see Zoom as a part of Beth El’s future.
Every rabbi they interviewed, over Zoom, naturally, agreed.
“All the candidates felt as though Zoom was going to be a major part of spiritual services for the foreseeable future,” Sauer said.
One rabbinical candidate visited Beth Hillel-Beth El in December. The other two finalists are coming in January.
Beth El also is using the first month of the new year for the final step in its search process.
At both places, the candidates who made it this far showed a combination of old and new-school priorities, according to synagogue leaders.
“Relationships and building relationships were really important,” Bookman said. “Getting to know people and families.”
But Bookman said that rabbis expressed unique ideas she hadn’t heard before, like forming groups around congregant interests and study groups that grew because they focused on whatever the groups were interested in.
No matter how unique those ideas were, though, they still came back to the oldest and most important rabbinical priority: listening to people.
Sauer said that, during Beth El’s interview process, he looked for that quality more than any other.
Tone of voice, mannerisms, eye contact with the camera, direct answers to questions.
“We asked a question, and we got an answer,” he said.
Sauer explained that synagogues are still relevant because people depend on them for baby namings, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings and funerals — the big life cycle events.
In many cases, Jewish people talk to their rabbis about more intimate subjects than they do to their friends. Therefore, without the ability to listen well, no candidate can move on to the final round.
“You want them to have a connection with you,” Sauer said.
In 2022 and beyond, building a connection also means bringing people and, in particular, younger families back to the synagogue. Not just virtually, but in person, too.
Sauer wants his new rabbi to offer young parents the democratic and transparent qualities that younger generations value. He said they have to feel not just like part of the synagogue, but like part of the process of building social and educational programming, too.
“The growth of the synagogue is dependent on young families coming in,” he said.
While that’s true, both Beth Hillel-Beth El and Beth El are in good shape at the moment. Beth Hillel-Beth El has about 700 families in its congregation; Beth El has roughly 825.
The synagogue leaders hope to complete their searches by February and begin the transition process that will culminate in the summer.
“We’re optimistic,” Sauer said.