For Rabbi Yosef Zarnighian, Congregation Mikveh Israel, the Philadelphia Jewish community and the job of assistant rabbi are all new.
The 27-year-old arrived in the city a year ago, starting his position on Sept. 6, 2021. Before that, he had never visited the area. It was also very different — from the synagogue melodies to the cuisine to the language — from the Great Neck, New York, community of Iranian Jews, most of them first-generation Americans, where he grew up.
Zarnighian found the adjustment to be a challenge. He had to build relationships with congregants, make new friends and establish a young household with his wife Marian, all at the same time. He also had to learn how to handle rabbinical duties, from sermons to life cycle events to bar and bat mitzvah classes, from his mentor at Mikveh Israel, Rabbi Albert Gabbai.
But as Zarnighian greeted everyone he met with a “happy, welcoming face,” as he described it, he found that locals greeted him back the same way. So, more than a year in, he may have found a new home.
“So far, it has been phenomenal,” he said.
Mikveh Israel is a 200-household congregation with a history that dates to Colonial times. Gabbai became the rabbi in 1988. But Zarnighian is his first assistant rabbi — and the synagogue’s first in 40 years.
After his hiring, Zarnighian was presented as his elder’s possible successor. He also was considered part of an expansion plan that included a new social hall/event space with the capability of promoting the shul to nonmembers. Gabbai stated then that his goal was to increase the congregation’s size back closer to its mid-20th century peak of about 500.
Also at the time, the older rabbi said he had no plan to retire. A little over a year later, though, he is singing a slightly different tune. Gabbai said he is not going to retire yet, but “it’s going to come soon.”
The reason for this development? Zarnighian.
The younger rabbi is already taking over “most of my responsibilities,” Gabbai said. He’s giving sermons on the Sabbath and on holidays; he’s handling the bar and bat mitzvah prep program; he’s officiating at circumcisions, weddings and funerals. Zarnighian has proven to be a faster learner than his mentor expected.
“For some people, it’s very quick, and for some it takes time. For him, it’s very quick,” Gabbai said.
When he arrived at Mikveh Israel, Zarnighian understood the challenge of growing into a successor to Gabbai. He also faced a congregation that was both more diverse, with Moroccans, Yemenis and Syrians, among others, and more transient, with city people as young as college students, than the community he came from.
Zarnighian said there was only one way to approach the challenge: Talk to everyone who walks through the door, and show them you care.
And not just smile, either. But really talk to people. Even if someone is just walking in and out.
“The care for each individual really makes the difference,” he said. “I’m a firm believer in that.”
According to Gabbai, Zarnighian “has a charm” and is “honest.” He also “cares about people” and “attracts young people.”
“When I’m ready to retire, that’s when he’ll be ready to take over everything,” Gabbai said.
Zarnighian, for his part, said he wants that responsibility.
He called Philadelphia “a growing community” and said he sees people moving to the city “for work, for university, for higher studies.” He thinks the COVID-era trend of people moving from New York to Philadelphia for better prices may continue. Zarnighian sees that as a potential opportunity for Mikveh Israel to “expose its heritage to a much broader audience.”
But even if the audience stays the same, he may be happy with it. Zarnighian would not be warming to his new community if it wasn’t for the people around him.
“I’ve settled into the role very well in the sense that the people here are incredibly, incredibly welcoming, wholesome, kind, good people,” he said. “I’m new, but they also give me the opportunity to get to know them — to reach out to them outside of synagogue.”
In June, Zarnighian and his wife welcomed a daughter into the world and their Center City home. Since then, they’ve been in “parenting mode,” in addition to synagogue mode.
But he called that a blessing, too.
“Raising your precious little one changes you,” he said. “It really completes you as a person in a way that’s meaningful.” JE