It’s a new era at Beth Tikvah-B’nai Jeshurun in Erdenheim.
In a May 17 email, the synagogue announced the hiring of a new senior rabbi in Roni Handler and a new director of congregational music in Benjamin Greenfield.
Both Handler and Greenfield were already working at the Montgomery County synagogue. Handler is replacing the retiring Saul Grife as senior rabbi, and Greenfield is moving into a full-time role.
Handler and Greenfield arrived at BTBJ in 2017, and the similarities don’t end there. Both proved themselves to congregants in the education wing of the synagogue, with Handler serving as director of congregational learning and Greenfield guiding the bar and bat mitzvah tutoring program.
“Having those connections with children and families is so important to the future of the synagogue, and to connect with families who want to join the synagogue,” said Michael Drossner, the temple’s outgoing president and a longtime member.
BTBJ lay leaders could have easily handed the senior rabbi position to Handler, a rabbi they liked who was already on site. But they didn’t. Instead, they conducted a real search for Grife’s replacement, considering dozens of candidates through both the first and second rounds.
While bias can never be discounted in a situation like that, Handler nonetheless stood out, according to Drossner. Her work transforming BTBJ’s religious school is convincing, he added.
Over the past five years, Handler introduced a mentorship program in which sixth graders partner with older students. She has also implemented an approach to bar and bat mitzvah prep in which students discuss the meaning of the day instead of just practicing their Torah portions.
Drossner said feedback from parents of religious school students played a major role in the decision.
“Rabbi Handler is respected as an educator,” he said. “She understands our culture and community.”
She also likes the synagogue’s culture and community, and that’s why she’s excited to stay.
“I have found it to be just a really supportive, compassionate and inclusive and warm place to be,” Handler said.
Before his promotion, Greenfield’s role was less defined than Handler’s role as associate rabbi. Over the past few years, the cantor just kept taking on more important assignments.
What started as cantorial work on the weekends and some b’nai mitzvah tutoring grew into a leading role as b’nai mitzvah tutor. Greenfield was that good at it.
Drossner’s son just went through the bar mitzvah process, becoming a man in September. The president credited Greenfield for making the process “thorough.”
“He’s wonderful for the kids,” Drossner said. “Just phenomenal to work with.”
Greenfield, for his part, called it “an honor” to be made full time. He found the synagogue to be “warm and inviting” from the day he started.
But it was his work with bar and bat mitzvah students that really convinced him that BTBJ was the place for him. The cantor not only enjoys working with students but with their families, too.
“We’ve become like one big family,” he said.
Working one-on-one with kids as they transition into adulthood is a “special and sacred duty,” Greenfield added. He is consistently impressed with the questions the students ask and with how much they grow during the process.
The cantor compared those 9-12 months of preparation to putting up a building. First, you lay the foundation and then, over time, with each passing day, the structure comes into form.
“And the day of, or in a lot of cases three weeks to a month before, they are ready to get up and do this,” Greenfield said.
The cantor’s ability to make students feel comfortable helps them grow. And it’s that culture that BTBJ is trying to continue with both of its new leaders.
When Drossner was growing up, he had to wear a suit to his synagogue, he said. At BTBJ, he can dress casually.
Rabbi Handler and Cantor Greenfield have already played a big role in maintaining this comfortable environment. It is also what drew both of them into the synagogue.
At the same time, congregants are not afraid to think outside the box, according to Handler. In the wake of the pandemic, BTBJ now hosts hybrid Shabbat services in person and over a livestream. No idea is a bad idea among BTBJ leaders and congregants.
It is that balance between comfort and creativity that the new leaders are excited to try and maintain.
“The more I work in the community, the more I get to know it and feel at home,” Handler said.
“She and I have a fantastic working relationship,” Greenfield added of Handler. “It is a joy to share the bimah with her.” JE