June 14, 2007
Valley congregation Shaarey Zedek moves on with new rabbi
Rabbi Jonathan Rosenberg, who joined the congregation in March, was formally welcomed last month at the Orthodox synagogue's annual dinner. He is replacing Rabbi Aron Tendler, who stepped down in March 2006 after 22 years at the synagogue when rumors re-surfaced about "inappropriate misconduct" while teaching at YULA in the 1980s.
The public airing of the allegations, in which no formal charges were filed, and which did not implicate his activity at the synagogue, caused some discord in the synagogue between Tendler's supporters and detractors, as well as much unwanted public attention.Some bloggers have reported rumors that Tendler is planning to move to Baltimore.
During the last 12 months, the synagogue, the largest Orthodox synagogue in the Valley, has primarily focused on healing the rifts and searching for a new rabbi.
Shaarey Zedek's search for a new leader began immediately after Tendler stepped down, although it was put on hold during the High Holidays. Like many large congregations replacing a long-time and respected leader the challenge was to find a candidate to help the synagogue grow while representing the different constituencies within the congregation.
For Orthodox congregations that serve a particular neighborhood - like Shaarey Zedek or the Pacific Jewish Center in Venice Beach, which hired a new rabbi in 2003 - the process can be doubly challenging because the synagogues usually represent a wide swath of religious outlooks, from Modern Orthodox to "black hat."
With more than 350 member families, Shaarey Zedek prides itself on being home to many different groups. The tall, soft-spoken Rosenberg, 42, is what you would call "yeshiva-ish" (of the Yeshiva world, as opposed to from the Modern Orthodox world or from Yeshiva University). Born in Columbus, Ohio, he has served as pulpit rabbi since 1992 at his childhood synagogue, Congregation Ahavas Shalom, which has 130 member families. He received his rabbinic ordination from Ner Israel in Baltimore and studied at Yeshivas Mir in Jerusalem; he also attended the Talmudic University in Miami, where he received a second ordination.
It wasn't an easy decision for Rosenberg to move his wife, Aviva, and their seven children from Columbus to Los Angeles. But after spending time here - he was referred to Shaarey Zedek by a childhood friend from Columbus who is a member - he knew it was a good fit.
"I felt there was a lot of warmth, a lot of sincerity," he said. "I felt the people were genuine, not pretentious or insincere, and that was very important to me, especially coming from the Midwest, where regionally that's what people are known for."
Rosenberg said this was a chance he couldn't pass up.
"I could have stayed in Columbus and been comfortable; I didn't feel this need to leave because of any issue," he said, adding that he wanted a greater challenge, and Shaarey Zedek, with its influx of young couples, provided that challenge.
"It's almost the opposite of Columbus - in Columbus there's an oversaturation of Orthodox shuls for a smaller community," he said. "In Columbus there was a dearth of young families and here, there's a critical mass," he said.
That's one of his goals for the community, to work with the younger people - couples in their 20s and 30s, as well as teenagers, the "future leaders" he calls them. He also plans to present a large roster of adult education classes and, of course, provide spiritual leadership to the congregation.
"The rabbi's role is to bring people closer to God and to Torah. The vehicles are through teaching and speaking and trying to inspire an appreciation of mitzvot," he said.
He hopes to one day create an institution of learning under the auspices of the synagogue: "That's what really drew me to the job."
Rosenberg said that the Tendler matter didn't come into play in his consideration about the job.
"I heard very little about it," he said. "It wasn't of concern to me. I asked one of my rabbis - even rabbis need rabbis - and he said, 'It's not really germane to the whole process. Transitions happen and the shul is going through a transition,' and I only looked at it from this point forward."
When pressed on the matter, Rosenberg said, "I understood there was trauma. I was informed enough by people about the health of the congregation. I was told that it's ready for a new chapter, and that's all I needed to know."