This coming summer, after six wonderful years in New Jersey, my family and I will be moving to Marietta, Georgia, where I will become the senior rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim.
It was a long road to get to this exciting destination. The job search was unlike any I'd ever experienced before – and unlike that which most people face – because it was highly public. Usually, when someone leaves a position for a new one, they search privately. Workers might even have another role lined up before they begin to tell their current employer of their plans to leave. But for congregational rabbis, the opposite is true.
A congregational rabbi has a public profile, and the leaders at his or her synagogue have to be informed, as do members of their current and potential future communities. After rounds of initial phone and Skype interviews, a final tryout takes place over an extended Shabbat weekend. Not only do the congregants at the new shul community meet the applicant, but members of the rabbi's existing congregation notice when he or she is missing from the bimah on Shabbat.
Furthermore, it is also quite common for there to be no such thing as a professional reference. Thanks to modern online communication, once a synagogue narrows the field to a few finalists, it will typically send out a mass email to community members detailing the bios of each candidate and informing them of the dates each one will be visiting for the weekend. That’s when Jewish geography kicks in. Congregants seek out information, and the small Jewish world gets smaller as connections are discovered. Everyone a rabbi has ever served or known becomes a reference.
Then comes the shidduch. Not only does the congregation have to want the rabbi, but many rabbinic families – my wife and I included – have a list of criteria they hope their next Jewish community will meet. The synagogues that are often most attractive to rabbis tend to be in Jewish communities with a stable demography. Beyond a thriving synagogue, a stable demography means that the Jewish community can support amenities like day schools, Jewish community centers, and kosher restaurants. Having grown up with these amenities ourselves, my wife and I wanted our children to enjoy the same opportunities these facilities provide and the quality of life that goes with them.
Also paramount for us on a personal level was finding a place that we would be comfortable calling our spiritual and religious home, whose culture would inspire us to want to grow together with the congregation. This would mean finding a warm and welcoming synagogue with a strong intergenerational presence in the shul, especially in its leadership ranks.
We were not only looking for friends of all ages with whom we might socialize, but we were looking for a synagogue that was thinking seriously and planning for its future. In the Book of Exodus, Moses insisted that the Jewish people leave Egypt benaareynu uvizkayneynu, with our young and our old. For me, this verse had almost become a guiding principle: healthy synagogues are currently finding multiple entry points for people to connect not only at every age and stage of life, but with one another.
We found what we were looking for at Congregation Etz Chaim. Unknown to many, Atlanta is one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the United States. Its JCC and day school communities are thriving. It hosts a world famous Jewish Film Festival. There are kosher restaurants and extensive kosher sections in supermarkets. Marietta also has a Six Flags Water park (okay, that last one wasn't on the list, but it is pretty exciting).
Yet what sold us was the synagogue itself. Everyone we met, especially the staff and soon to be rabbi emeritus, Rabbi Shalom Lewis, were warm, welcoming and excited to introduce us to the community. Moreover, the synagogue had the intergenerational flavor we were looking for. When I saw some of our more mature congregants volunteering in preschool classrooms, and was told that each classroom had an assigned “bubbe” or a “zaydee” to provide a little yiddishkeit (traditional Jewish flavor) for the kids, I was touched. Over the weekend-long visit, my wife and I kept remarking to each other just how much the synagogue felt like a family. The leadership and active members of the synagogue whom we met represented a cadre of folks from all ages and stages of life, and yet they all seemed open to growth and Jewish learning.
Beyond that, while we had known before we arrived that the synagogue had a strong and vibrant Shabbat community, we left religious services and community meals feeling inspired and impressed by the level of participation among lay members. I can only imagine how the congregation must feel each week after coming together to worship.
My family will deeply miss the community we’ve been a part of at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey, for the past six wonderful years. Yet we feel grateful and blessed that Etz Chaim felt the same way about us as we felt about them, and invited us to provide their community with rabbinic leadership. Many rabbis in today’s age of Jewish community realignment undergo the same challenging interview process as us, but may not be blessed to find such a match. It may have been a long five-month road to travel, but in the summer, we’re looking forward to taking “the midnight train to Georgia."
Rabbi Dan Dorsch is the associate rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey. In July, he will assume the position as senior rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim, in Marietta, Georgia.
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