In 1999, Adam Zeff and his wife Cheryl moved to Mount Airy with their children. Shortly thereafter, the family joined the Germantown Jewish Centre, and Zeff got a job working in academic administration at the nearby Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.
It was his first job outside the home, as Zeff had taken care of his children while his wife worked as a medical resident. But it would also lead him to the rest of his career.
While helping rabbinical students, Zeff figured out that he wanted to become one of them. So in 2002, he enrolled at the RRC and became the student rabbi at his home synagogue. And he hasn’t left. Two decades later, the 56-year-old is now Rabbi Adam Zeff, and he has been the Germantown Jewish Centre’s spiritual leader since 2010.
On Nov. 4 and 5, the synagogue celebrated the rabbi’s 20th anniversary at the GJC with a musical Shabbat service, an oneg and a luncheon, among other activities. Zeff’s mentor and predecessor, Rabbi Leonard Gordon, who served the temple from 1994 to 2010, came back from Boston to join in on the celebration.
“Adam is incredibly diligent and hard-working,” Gordon said. “A large part of the rabbinate has to do with showing up and being present.”
In the late 1990s, Zeff was not sure if he wanted to show up and be present for a job outside his home. He was enjoying and finding meaning in doing both of those things for his kids. He kept asking himself, “What could be important enough to take me away from my children?” (The Zeffs have three sons, Zeke, Avi and Mati.)
The future rabbi was a Ph.D. student in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania. But academia was not the answer to his question, he said. As a cultural anthropologist, though, he was interested in what was in people’s minds.
“How do they make meaning in their lives?” the rabbi asked.
But instead of just studying people’s answers to that question, he wanted to explore it with them. What’s the meaning of life? What kind of moral and ethical guidelines should we follow? Those were the questions that Zeff really wanted to ask, he said.
He started thinking about all of that before he took the job at the RRC. And once he started working at the college and talking to future rabbis, his thoughts became clear.
“I was thinking about what’s most important to me in my life,” he said.
As a congregant at the Germantown Jewish Centre, Zeff became known as an active volunteer, according to Gordon. Then when he became the student rabbi in 2002 and the assistant rabbi upon his graduation from the RRC in 2007, he showed his ability to lead a service.
“He’s a singer; he’s a composer; he writes stories,” Gordon said. “He’s added a musical dimension to things that revitalized our prayer services in very important ways.”
Gordon never expected to leave Mount Airy in 2010. But when his wife got a job in Boston, he followed her there. All of a sudden, the Germantown Jewish Centre needed a new spiritual leader. Synagogue officials spent a year asking congregants what they wanted in a new rabbi. Their answers kept alluding to the man who was already in the building.
Zeff was still a volunteer at heart. His musical talents made services lively. And he understood that, in a synagogue with 515 households, many of which included rabbis who worked in other institutions, the spiritual leader must know when to lead and when to let the people lead.
“We have to make room in the world for other people. We can’t take up all the air in the room. We have to leave room for others,” the rabbi said.
Zeff has never worked at another synagogue. And he does not see that changing anytime soon. Under his leadership, the GJC managed to add 10-15 families per year during the
GJC congregant Mathieu Shapiro said there’s a moment every year when Zeff reminds him of why he belongs to the Mount Airy synagogue. It’s when the rabbi sings the final Sim Shalom near the end of Yom Kippur services.
“He sings this particular tune with energy and vigor that seem impossible at the end of the long day of fasting, but simultaneously seem typical for him,” Shapiro said. “He sings it with the spirituality he constantly brings both to our services and to our everyday interactions with him.” JE