During the nine-month search for a new senior rabbi at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, members of the synagogue’s search committee met with Rabbi Seth Haaz.
They went around the room, and everyone on the committee shared formative experiences they had at Har Zion, which has nearly 900 families as members.
“It was really clear how connected they really felt to their Har Zion community,” Haaz said. “That was really a hook for me, too, that there was a deep love for it.”
Haaz grew up in Elkins Park and Huntingdon Valley and, after spending the last 20 years in the Boston area, Washington, D.C., New York City, Israel and Middletown, Conn., he has returned to the area as Har Zion’s senior rabbi, beginning Aug. 1.
“Now I get to come back and encounter the Philadelphia area as an adult,” Haaz said. “It’s fun to think that there were so many different ways I learned about being Jewish in the Philadelphia area as a young person, and now I get to come back and contribute to what it means to be a Jewish person in the Philadelphia area as one of many Jewish leaders.”
Growing up, Haaz participated in United Synagogue Youth, spent Shabbats with residents at the Philadelphia Geriatric Center and worked for Ramah Day Camp and Camp Ramah in the Poconos. He attended and went to religious school at Beth Sholom Congregation, where he first saw the role a synagogue could play in bringing families together.
He graduated from Lower Moreland High School and studied economics and political theory at Tufts University, intending to go into finance. But at Tufts Hillel, Haaz discovered a different calling.
He served as Shabbat chair and spent about two hours every Friday afternoon preparing for Shabbat that evening. Much of the work just involved cutting flowers, but it gave him an appreciation for the transition from the work week to Shabbat.
“I began to fall in love with Shabbat in a different way at Tufts Hillel,” Haaz said. “Then I became the treasurer and the president, and I just really began to take on the responsibility for how other Jews were encountering their Judaism on campus. I grew a deep passion for connecting Jews to their Judaism and building community.”
At the end of his time at Tufts, he was interviewing for jobs in finance and speaking to Jewish community leaders about what a professional job in the community could look like.
Haaz took a year off to figure out what he wanted. He ended up spending that time in Washington, D.C., where he worked at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, conducting research and working in the Office of Survivor Affairs.
After that, he attended the Jewish Theological Seminary for five years in New York City and one in Israel.
His first position out of school was at Congregation Adath Israel in Middletown, Conn., where he has spent the last nine years.
“It was a small synagogue, about 170 membership units, but a wonderful, warm community. I had a few staff members who I worked with,” Haaz said. “But I will have the experience to really push myself in a different way, to lead a large staff at Har Zion, and that’s something I’m looking forward to … the chance to dream of a Jewish community with different people and additional perspectives.”
Haaz said he was drawn to the opportunity to return to Philadelphia and be close to his parents, both for himself and his family. He has two daughters, one of whom will attend the Har Zion preschool, while the other will attend Perelman Jewish Day School.
He also was drawn to the opportunity to think about what a synagogue can look like and how to better engage young and interfaith families. He said the many resources Har Zion has, such as its summer camp and early education program, makes it ideal for answering and experimenting with the questions facing synagogues and Jewish communities.
David Becher, head of the rabbi search committee and rabbi transition committee, said the committee was impressed by Haaz’s interpersonal skills and ability to make connections with community members.
“That strength really struck us all in the group,” Becher said. “Everything he did was with a purpose. He didn’t say things just to say them. It was clear that if he said something, he meant it.”
On Aug. 3, Har Zion will have a Shabbat welcoming Haaz.
When he starts his new position, Haaz will first spend his time getting to know the community.
“This is really a beautiful thing about being a rabbi,” Haaz said, “that you’re able to engage people, really hear their stories and what they do with them, be with them through life cycle moments, that you get to learn their Torah and incorporate it into your own.”
Some decades ago, when Har Zion was located at 54th Street and Wynnefield Road in West Philly, we had an exceptional brilliant Jewish scholar named Chaim Potok. If Rabbi Haaz is anywhere near our beloved Chaim in stature, Har Zion has a true treasure leading us.
Let us hope this seemingly quality gentleman keeps his sermons limited to the important issues of our very beautiful Jewish faith, rather than politicizing almost every trivial event in Washington, like certain other local rabbis are engaged in these past 18 months.