Congregation Beth El in Voorhees, New Jersey, has a new senior rabbi in David Englander.
Englander, 50, is moving to South Jersey after 22 years at B’nai Torah Congregation, a Conservative synagogue in Boca Raton, Florida. He is making the move because he likes what he sees in Beth El, also a Conservative institution; in addition, he wants to become a senior rabbi for the first time.
“Now’s my chance to take on a bigger leadership role,” Englander said. “But more so, it’s exciting to join a vibrant community.”
The rabbi will replace Aaron Krupnick, who will step down this summer after leading Beth El for 27 years. Krupnick is leaving behind a congregation with about 780 families, according to synagogue President Stuart Sauer.
Englander understands what it takes to serve a big community, as B’nai Torah counts roughly 1,000 families in its membership.
“The success of a rabbi in any size congregation is connected to relationships,” he said. “Making sure people can rely on you for a listening ear.”
Sauer believes Englander will be good at the relationship part. He said the new rabbi connected with the congregation during his winter visit as part of the interview process.
Members submitted questions for a series of town meetings, and the rabbi’s answers were “on point,” Sauer said. During those same answers, he elaborated on potential aspects of his vision.
That vision part, according to Englander, is the key difference between his new role and his previous one. In Florida, the rabbi contributes ideas that could shape the direction of his synagogue. But in New Jersey, he will have the final say on the direction, although he is quick to say that he can’t make those decisions alone.
Englander intends to lean on Beth El’s existing educators, professional staff members and volunteers to help run the synagogue’s programs. The congregation offers education options for people of all ages, and its Early Childhood Center welcomes more than 100 students per year.
The new rabbi does not want to fix something that works.
“They educate from infants until our most seasoned members,” he said. “They have a terrific religious school.”
But there are some new directions in which Englander will have to take the lead.
New rabbis in the COVID era are asking themselves an existential question. What is a synagogue in a world with both physical and virtual dimensions?
Englander has a philosophical answer, which can become a foundation for a practical answer. He believes the Jewish community functions best in person, but he thinks it can function even better with a digital addition.
“We have two doors,” Englander said. “A physical door and a virtual door.”
He sees two ways in which a synagogue can use the digital space.
There’s the add-on option to Shabbat, High Holiday and other services, which Englander views as a more passive experience for people at home but still “high quality.” Then there’s the more active and personal use for “classes for all ages,” Englander said.
“There will be much more opportunity for interaction and for people to feel like they’re part of a conversation,” he added.
While Englander believes the virtual part is important, he thinks another frontier may even be more important. He said more and more people today are looking for volunteer opportunities and so, as a synagogue leader, he hopes to focus on “harnessing people’s desire to do good,” he said.
This means emphasizing volunteer opportunities that will make an impact on the community and help volunteers meet each other. Englander thinks community service may be the key to activating the younger generations that synagogues always need to court.
To do so, though, Beth El needs to take an inclusive approach, he said. Conservative Judaism no longer excludes women from certain roles, gays from full support in their Jewish journeys and Jews by choice in general, according to Englander. So, it’s incumbent upon Conservative institutions to continue that ethos.
Inclusivity does not mean that a synagogue is no longer Conservative, either. As Englander explained, Conservatism is about following traditions, not only allowing certain people to follow them.
“Saying Shabbat ends when three stars come out on Saturday night is different from saying it ends when we want it to end,” the rabbi said. “We’re still guided by our understanding of Jewish law in those practices. We’re just more inclusive.” JE