Growing up in a Conservative synagogue in Livingston, New Jersey, Adam Lautman felt invisible. It was the early 2000s, and Jewish culture seemed all about “nice Jewish boys meeting nice Jewish girls and having nice Jewish babies,” he said.
For a gay teen, the situation was “challenging.” But at the same time, Lautman felt a connection with Judaism. He even looked in a Jewish Theological Seminary catalog at one point to see if he could become a cantor. But then he read that JTS was not accepting homosexuals for that program.
It was not until the early 2010s, while a student at Rutgers University, that Lautman found his place: Nehirim, a Jewish spirituality community for LGBTQ people. During retreats and other gatherings, Lautman grew to love reading, studying and discussing the Torah. He also realized that a gay man could be out of the closet as a Jew.
Today, Lautman, 33, is not just an out and proud Jew. He’s a rabbi, ordained in 2020 at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.
And after serving in a variety of rabbinical jobs for the past two years, he’s taking over his first senior rabbi role at Temple Har Zion in Mount Holly, New Jersey. The 50-family congregation gathers in its white, architecturally striking domed sanctuary at 255 High St., just steps away from Mount Holly’s downtown. Inside, it has a small but cozy social hall and a hallway of offices.
But after two pandemic years that forced congregants to worship from home, it feels quiet inside. Lautman is the synagogue’s only full-time employee and the first rabbi on the payroll since Cynthia Kravitz left in January of 2021. And while a solid 20 or so people attend Shabbat services weekly, the temple no longer offers a religious school like it did before 2020.
The rabbi who once felt invisible in his Jewish community is taking over the leadership of a congregation looking to increase its visibility.
“I have a story of sort of having to find my way into the Jewish community and forming that relationship with God and my relationship with the Jewish community, as opposed to always having it be spread out before me and easy,” Lautman said. “That makes it helpful and easy to connect with people who are struggling with their Judaism, who aren’t as connected and to empathize and to be there for people.”
But while Lautman understands the challenge of revitalizing the synagogue, his mindset is not growth, growth, growth. For now, he just wants to get to know the congregation’s devoted members, most of whom are older.
Even if the temple grows in the long run, the rabbi hopes to remain focused on making deep connections with members. That’s why right now the first step is to come back together in person “a lot more,” he explained.
“So many people of all ages are craving connection,” the rabbi added. “There’s a wonderful opportunity here to provide those opportunities for people.”
Temple Har Zion is 85 years old. From 1985 to 2017, Rabbi Richard Simon led the congregation. Then Rabbi Tiferet Berenbaum replaced Simon for two years from 2017 to 2019. After Berenbaum, Kravitz served from January 2020 to January 2021 before stepping away into a semi-retirement.
Kravitz, though, was part-time. But before hiring Lautman, the synagogue’s board of trustees decided to bring on a full-time spiritual leader again.
Laura Markowitz, a board member and the chair of the search committee, said they felt it was important for Har Zion and the rabbi to commit to each other. The shul had always run on a full-time clergy model with volunteers handling all of the other synagogue duties, and it could so again, the trustees believed.
Over the past year-and-a-half, Hazzan Evlyn Gould, who lives on the West Coast, served as a sort of rent-a-rabbi when Har Zion needed someone to come in, like on the High Holidays. With the temple reopening, it was time for the board to find its leader again.
“It was important to have somebody full-time and in the area,” Markowitz said. “The board feels that it’s important, and it’s important to the members.”
And then Lautman came for his in-person interview/try-out. As he led a service from the bimah, Markowitz had a moment.
“I sat there and looked at him and said, ‘It’s a match,’” she recalled. “It just hit me. I didn’t think it. I felt it.”
Lautman moved to Cherry Hill on July 25 with his cat Buffy. JE