Rabbi Ronald Shulman of Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay wasn't seeking a new challenge when the leadership of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore approached him a year ago about applying for a position as senior rabbi of the 1,400-member Conservative shul. Shulman was just coming off a high after being feted at a major celebration that drew 450 people in honor of his 20th anniversary as rabbi of the Rancho Palos Verdes synagogue.
"I turned down their invitations to apply twice before I ultimately decided to consider the opportunity," said Shulman, whose last day with the South Bay synagogue was June 30. "It was quite a humbling honor to have been selected for this position. As I explained to the members of Congregation Ner Tamid, I did not choose to leave there, but rather to accept this singular rabbinic opportunity."
Shulman said Ner Tamid -- which he joined in July 1983 at age 27 after being ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary -- and the Palos Verdes Peninsula Jewish community, "will always be our home."
"We have shared so much of life's experiences and Jewish celebrations together," he said. "There is a very different feel to the Palos Verdes South Bay community than I experienced in the San Fernando Valley," where Shulman grew up. "Jewish life here revolves around the synagogue because there aren't many Jewish organizations here. As a result of that, the synagogue becomes a larger piece of the Jewish community here."
Shulman, 48, clearly helped build both the synagogue and the community that enriched it. The shul's membership tripled in size during his tenure, from about 200 to more than 600 families; it's the largest shul in the South Bay.
Shulman is particularly proud of its thriving youth programs, including its United Synagogue Youth (USY) chapter that draws 200-plus teens and is ranked second in the nation. Religious school students number about 400, with an additional 50 in the preschool, according to temple administrator Beatrice Shapiro.
The departing rabbi also expressed pride in the physical expansion of the synagogue that occurred on his watch. The original synagogue, constructed at its current site atop a hill on the Palos Verdes Peninsula in 1978, was expanded in two phases (in 1998 and 2001) to include a community center, a refurbished sanctuary and a school that was double its former size. More important than the facility's increased dimensions, Shulman said, "is its spiritual ideas expressed in physical form."
The materials and colors that draw from nature, plus the use of glass, light and artwork bring "a real feel of sacred space" to the building, he said.
But the real draw of the synagogue has been Shulman himself, said Robin Franko, the recently appointed director of The Jewish Federation/South Bay Council. A lifelong member of Congregation Ner Tamid and a close friend of Shulman and his family, she called the rabbi "beloved" and "bigger than life." He had a remarkable ability to make Judaism more accessible to different populations within the synagogue, from the very young to the very old, she said.
"He wanted to connect [people] to their Jewish spirituality ... to make Judaism more approachable," she said. "He was never irritated or flustered if children misbehaved. As a result, children felt comfortable going to him.... At Purim, he'd dress as a jester or Batman. He was a fun-loving, spirited guy who was very popular. He was truly loved by everyone."
Shulman's influence reached beyond his shul to the larger community, Ner Tamid President Howard Blumberg said.
"He became a leading spokesperson for Judaism in the South Bay. He gave us a presence here," Blumberg said.
Known in Palos Verdes and beyond as a deep thinker with quite a following, Shulman was active in founding the Dawn Unity interfaith group on a Palos Verdes Peninsula and recently contributed his insights in helping The Jewish Federation/South Bay Council formulate new plans to improve programs and participation among the South Bay Jewish community, Franko said. He was also largely responsible for Ner Tamid being selected in 1996 as a pilot site for the Synagogue 2000, an effort to foster synagogue transformation.
As for Shulman himself, Blumberg said, "I have never met a man of greater integrity in my life. He was always there for my family and this community."
Shulman's vision for the Ner Tamid community will continue in his absence, Blumberg added: "One thing I know and a great comfort I have is the community ... Rabbi Shulman shaped over time is strong and vibrant and will go forward for a very long time."
Serving the synagogue for the next year while a permanent rabbi is sought will be Rabbi Jerry Danzig, who retired in 1999 after more than 40 years of rabbinical work -- including 14 years at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino as an executive director and assistant to Rabbi Harold Schulweis.
Danzig has been extremely busy in "retirement" doing what he called "rabbi-ing" around, including teaching at the University of Judaism's Department of Continuing Education and lecturing in Australia. Not a fan of the term "interim rabbi," Danzig said he expects to give the job at the South Bay synagogue his "full attention and talent. I take this very seriously. I'm not going to give it any less than all that I have."
Born in Chicago and raised in Encino, Shulman attended VBS, where he was president of USY at the time that Schulweis joined the temple.
"He's been a very important mentor and teacher in my life," Shulman said of Schulweis.
Shulman and his wife, Robin have two daughters: Heidi, 19, a sophomore at the University of Arizona, and Felicia, 16, a high school junior. The move to the East Coast will be a challenging adjustment for his family, he said.
"This is the only community my children have ever known," he said.
However, Chizuk Amuno, a 133-year-old synagogue, "is a very special and unique synagogue that offers me the opportunity to be involved in things I care about," he said. "[It] has a proud history of Jewish learning, not only for children, but for hundreds of adults on a regular basis. In addition to five schools for children and adults students it houses a unique museum and engages many of its member sin social and community service."
Being part of a prominent synagogue that is located only about 35 miles from Washington, D.C., will also provide him with more opportunities to become involved in political, cultural and religious activities in the area, he added.
Shulman expressed great pride in his contributions to the synagogue at the crest of a hill in Palos Verdes.
"Whoever follows me will be in a solid position to build upon our achievements to date," he said. "After 21 years in the South Bay, my family and I will remain members of Congregation Ner Tamid and look forward to maintaining our friendships there -- and in the Los Angeles area -- for many years to come."