My family is friends with the rabbi at our synagogue, but we’re actually thinking of switching to a different synagogue in our town. What’s the best way to handle the inevitable awkward social interactions that will result from this move?
Before I get to answering your question, let me start with this: Switch rhymes with witch, and today is Halloween, so if you came here for some seasonal content, I’m happy to reshare some of my advice straight from 2017. A lot has changed since then, but my positive feelings about Halloween as a communal experience have not. Also, obviously, go Phils!
With that out of the way, we can turn to discussing a different kind of communal experience — a synagogue that’s no longer working for your family. While a rabbi is a crucially important part of the synagogue community, they’re not the only part that determines whether or not a place is a good fit for you overall.
And, someone can be a great friend to you and still not be the rabbi you’re looking for in your religious home. (It’s even possible to speculate that by the very nature of being friends with the rabbi, you’re less likely to get the rabbinic experience you may be looking for.)
Rabbis are used to dealing with all kinds of difficult interpersonal scenarios and direct personal criticisms. You will not be the first congregant to leave the synagogue with whom the rabbi had a friendship outside of work. While the rabbi may be personally disappointed or even hurt, it’s their responsibility to keep those feelings quiet in a professional capacity.
Outside of that professional context, though, the results are going to depend a lot on the strength of your relationship. If you’re genuinely close, with a friendship that transcends the circumstances of seeing each other every Shabbat, then you can continue to operate as friends. It’s theoretically possible that your friendship may even strengthen when you’re no longer also congregants.
I’m not sure there’s any way to fully avoid awkwardness, but you can at least partially handle it by being on top of the situation and addressing it head on. I would recommend setting up a meeting with the rabbi and explaining the situation. You could lead with something like, “I really value you and your friendship and the care you put into this community, and I wanted to let you know that my family is moving to a different synagogue.”
I hope that your rabbi uses the appropriate discretion in asking follow-up questions. If your mind is made up, don’t wade into a conversation that won’t change the outcome, and resist the temptation to apologize or make excuses. Whether or not the following is exactly true, you can say, “This isn’t about you or your leadership but just what’s best for our family.”
However, if there actually are things that the rabbi or the community could change that would encourage you to stay, you could share them, knowing that those suggestions are probably more likely to change the future of your friendship rather than the future of your synagogue.
I fully admit that you’re in a tough spot, but if the friendship is enduring, I trust that it will endure. Of course, it’s also possible that one or both of you will need to take a break until your feelings settle down, and it’s also possible that your friendship will never be exactly the same as it’s been.
You won’t know until you’re there, and while that unknown is scary, you still need to move forward with the right move for your family.