Jewish Journal

A Writer, A Rabbi and a Connection

by Sandee Brawarsky

Posted on Jan. 16, 2003 at 7:00 pm

Some synagogues want a rabbi who's a good sermonizer, others want a scholar; some want someone who relates well to their teenagers, others want a rabbi they can call by first name and play tennis or basketball with; some want an individual well known in the larger community, others want a rabbi who knows them well; some go for formality, others for lots of hugging. Some want it all.

In "The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader," investigative reporter Stephen Fried gets inside the congregational mindset the way no other writer has. He intensely follows the process of finding a replacement for Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, when he steps down after leading a Main Line Philadelphia synagogue, Har Zion, for 30 years. But the compelling book is as much about Judaism in America and the role of the rabbi, as it's about Har Zion. And it's as much about Fried's return to synagogue life as it's about Wolpe's departure.

Fried, who has written for Vanity Fair, GQ and other magazines, is the author of books about the inside workings of the fashion industry, and the dangers of adverse reactions to prescription drugs. It some ways it seems that the Har Zion story is one he was destined to write.

In 1997, Fried's father died suddenly in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., at age 62, and the reporter, who had been a six-day-a-year synagogue-goer began attending daily minyan in Philadelphia to say "Kaddish." Wolpe had been the much-beloved spiritual leader of his family's Harrisburg synagogue before he was lured away by Har Zion in 1969. When Fried prays, in fact, it's often Wolpe's cadences that he hears, and he recalls that Wolpe's sermons were often the topic of conversation at the Fried Friday night table.

A few months after his father's death, Fried went to see Wolpe, known as a master speaker, whom he had been in touch with once in the 20 years he was working as a journalist in Philadelphia, calling him for a quote for a story he was working on. "For a guy whose voice is in my head, I should know him better," Fried writes.

Wolpe, who is the father of Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple, granted Fried unprecedented access to his own story, and to the private life of the synagogue in transition. Although the journalist wasn't able to convince the rabbinic search committee to let him sit in on their meetings, he did manage to follow what was going on, with the help of a few moles and his own schmoozing abilities over a three-year period.

A process that was expected to take one year is extended to three. Wolpe makes a decision to stay out of the selection process, but continues to speak with Fried, quite openly, about his life's choices, his own father's death when he was a boy, his wife's illness and healing, his mentors and mentoring and his four accomplished sons, two of whom are rabbis.

Fried brings to life a range of personalities -- from the machers who are close to Wolpe to the soccer moms active at the Hebrew school as well as the cast of rabbis from around the country being considered for the job, including the assistant rabbi of Har Zion, Rabbi Jacob Herber.

Fried's approach is altogether serious, although leavened with a breezy writing style.

One of the messages of his book, he noted, is that American religious communities are important and they're also fragile. "The process like the one I'm writing about can refortify an institution for the next generation or really cripple it, no matter how powerful it is. It's also important that attention be paid," he said.

"Another message for me, personally, is that the search for spirituality in one's own religion, rather than running to another, is incredibly rewarding," he added.

For Fried, one of the hardest parts of writing this book was knowing when to stop reporting. The story went on: Wolpe came out of retirement to fill in at a major synagogue in Palm Beach, Fla., having some difficulties; the events of Sept. 11 happened, and the selection process seemed ongoing at Har Zion. As has been reported in the Philadelphia Exponent, the new rabbi's installation has been delayed, and there may be some controversy about his future. Fried will write an afterword, bringing the story up to date, for the paperback edition, due out next year.

The final scene in "The New Rabbi" is Yom Kippur 2001, when Fried attends services at his own synagogue in downtown Philadelphia, and is surprised to see Wolpe in his signature red tallit, seated alone in the pews. When he goes over to greet him, the rabbi says his wife isn't coming and invites Fried, whose wife is also at home, to join him. Fried realizes that for all the time they've spent talking, they've never sat side-by-side praying together. They chat a bit, share pages of supplemental readings and say "Yizkor," "alone and together and in the loudest of silences, for the souls of our fathers."

 Stephen Fried will be speaking with Rabbi David Wolpe at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 29 at Sinai Temple, 10400 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. $5 (members), $8 (nonmembers). R.S.V.P., (310) 481-3217.  

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