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The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for its Leader by Stephen Fried


Rating: (Recommended)


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There may be as many as three books inside the pages of Stephen Fried’s The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for its Leader. In the main book, Fried takes readers behind the scenes at Temple Har Zion on Philadelphia’s Main Line, as the long-serving senior rabbi, Gerald Wolpe, is retiring, and the congregation is searching for a replacement. Woven within the pages of that story is Fried’s own story of his religious journey, from the temple in Harrisburg, where Har Zion’s retiring rabbi served when Fried was a kid, to the nurturing Fried receives through an increased prayer life over the three years he spent researching this book. The third book deals with all the issues about real fathers and father figures, and how sons and fathers relate. Two of Wolpe’s sons are rabbis. The death of Fried’s father leads him back to temple. The assistant rabbi at Har Zion looks to Wolpe as a father figure, and suffers the loss of a father-in-law while he’s being considered for the job of senior rabbi. Fried’s touch is light as the story unfolds: he explains enough for non-Jews to understand what’s going on, and he approaches the congregation from many perspectives.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 14, “God I Hope I Get It,” (pp. 152-3), starting with the search committee’s interview of a balding rabbi, whose kippah is attached to what hair he has, in a jaunty angle on the side of his head:

The search subcommittee gives Rabbi Rank a chance to impress them, and he does: he is personable, smart, committed, experienced. But with the jaunty tip of his kippah, he would have to be the second coming of Rabbi Akiba to convince them to bring him back to meet the full committee.

He starts out with a d'var Torah on the week's parasha, and then takes questions. He grew up in Minneapolis, trained at the Seminary; his wife's a Jewish educator and author, they have three kids. Then he talks a little bit about the Rabbi's Manual, the existence of which would normally not be well known outside of the clergy, but his update actually got some lay press. It is the first such manual to contain a grieving ritual to be held after an abortion. And the ritual has an interesting Har Zion tie-in. The prayer itself was written by Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Philadelphia native who was the first woman to be ordained by the Conservative movement, in the mid-eighties, and who had her first and only pulpit as assistant rabbi at Har Zion. (She left after only one year, eventually becoming a popular teacher and writer.)

Rabbi Rank is doing well enough until he is asked what kinds of source material he uses for his sermons. He begins telling the group about a recent sermon that incorporated lyrics from a Bob Dylan song.

Uh-oh, wrong answer, Cindy Blum thinks to herself. Dylan lyrics aren't going to fly with this group; they want to hear about rabbinics, scholarly work, religious sources. From the moment the words “Bob Dylan song" come out of his mouth, Rank's interview is over, like a first date that has suddenly revealed itself to be the last date. There is nothing left to  do but maintain politeness until  the interview's conclusion. Fortunately, Lou Fryman knows how to move things along. He begins by subtly cutting off answers to prevent elaboration. And when Rank thanks them for their consideration and leaves, everyone in the room knows that he will not be the new rabbi.


Over the next weeks, more candidates are shuttled in and out. One whom the committee likes is Rabbi Michael Wasserman, currently at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham, Alabama. Wasserman is from Boston, went to Harvard and then entered the Seminary in his mid-twenties. His first rabbinic job was as the director of outreach at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan, where he worked with interfaith couples and young singles; then he had pulpits on Long Island and in Rhode Island before taking the job at Beth-El, a seven-hundred-family synagogue in Birmingham, where he's finishing his second three-year contract.

Wasserman is an interesting prospect because his wife, Elana Kanter, is also an ordained rabbi. Even though they have three growing kids, she serves as his associate rabbi at Beth-El, and as educational director of the synagogue. If Wasserman were selected, Har Zion wouldn't have to worry about a rebbitzin who was too involved in her secular career to play an active role in the congregation. But the rabbi is still just testing the waters. He isn't sure he's ready to leave Birmingham, or whether Har Zion is right for him. Still, he comes right away when the synagogue offers to fly him in for an interview. He gives a strong d'var Torah greeted by a chorus of congratulatory yasher koachs, and before heading back home he visits the nearby Akiba Hebrew Academy, the oldest all-day Jewish high school in the country, which has strong links to Har Zion.

The school was located at Har Zion Wynnefield before moving to its own building. One of Wasserman's reasons for considering a new pulpit is that there is no Jewish high school in Birmingham for his kids, the oldest of whom is ten.


In the meantime, the committee attempts to generate more interest in the Har Zion position. Even though it is expressly against the Rabbinical Assembly rules—and Rabbi Herber has given the Two Lews a little lecture on the dangers of getting excommunicated by the RA—the synagogue is reaching out directly to a number of rabbis to see if they would be interested in applying. They have a master wish list that the committee has divvied up.


The book jacket shows stained glass windows, and Fried describes them late in the book (pp. 324-5):


During the Musaf service, I lose my concentration on the prayers as well as the Landises, and find myself turned away from the congregation, staring instead at the massive stained-glass window to my right. I see these windows every week as I walk into services, but I have never really looked at them closely from this perspective: in my aisle seat, I’m only three or four feet from the bottom of the window, which rises some thirty feet above my head. Light floods through the richly colored glass, yet from this vantage point I can't really make out the images that are so apparent from afar. Instead I look closely at the windows themselves. They are constructed from hunks of glass of various colors, sizes and textures that are splintered and shattered in fascinating ways, joined with a black epoxy that is an inch thick in some places and razor thin in others. While the windows, one for each major holiday, appear perfect in their glistening modernity from far away, up close you can see just how massive each piece is and just how distressed. None of the glass seems to have been cut into shape, but rather smashed, broken with a hammer, ripped off, bitten off. Yet the pieces are held together by a nearly hidden force that somehow keeps them from crumbling under their own imperfections.

It occurs to me that these windows are a mirror of this community: big, unwieldy, colorful, opaque, dazzling uncut jewels that don't exactly match up but are held together anyway by something powerful and amorphous that fills in both the cracks in the pieces and the cracks between the pieces. Each piece changes in color and intensity depending on the quality of light shining through it and the perspective of the viewer. In this stained-glass community, every piece has great value, no matter how distressed or distressing, because it holds something else in place. I look to my left at the congregation, and then turn back right to the window, and they are both bathed in the same light.


Readers from any religious tradition, or none, will find The New Rabbi fascinating to read.

Steve Hopkins, March 25, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the April 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: New Rabbi.htm


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