February 11, 2009
Two thousand people showed up at Temple Beth Am this past Shabbat, and not just to see Shifrah Harris become a bat mitzvah.
That’s why I went — Shifrah and my daughter went to school together.
But a large portion of the assembly came to hear Rabbi Adam Kligfeld, or, as several people had taken to calling him that morning, The Contestant. After months sifting through resumes and conducting interviews to fill the venerable shul’s post of senior rabbi, the rabbinical search committee had narrowed the field to three. Now each finalist was to spend a Shabbat with the congregation at La Cienega and Olympic and engage in a kind of rabbinic decathlon so members could assess them in action.
It was this ultimate event — the Saturday sermon to the assembled congregation — that drew the largest crowd.
“This is the talent portion of the competition,” one temple humorist — there is no shortage of them at Beth Am — whispered to me. “You missed the bathing suits.”
Yes, in the era of “Survivor” and “Apprentice,” the day was rife with references to reality TV.
“Actually, it’s terrible casting,” said a member there for the judgment. “Did you notice all the contestants are Jews?”
The humor helped diffuse the day’s innate drama.
This is a shul that grows attached to its senior rabbis, and vice versa. Rabbi Joel Rembaum announced his retirement just over a year ago, after serving 25 years. He had taken the helm from Rabbi Jacob Pressman, who served 50 years.
Rabbi Pressman, now 88 years old, came for the tryout, along with his wife, Marjorie, the ur-rebbetzin.
As one woman said of her shul and its rabbis, “We mate for life.” That had to weigh on the mind of Rabbi Kligfeld as he stood on the pulpit. Kligfeld is a youthful looking 38-year-old, a father of two. He leads Congregation Eitz Chaim, a community of 150 families in Monroe, N.Y. He knows the e-mail addresses of every active member of his shul, he told people the night before. Now, staring out into a huge, packed sanctuary, he had to be asking himself: What do they all want of me?
I sat in the balcony. In the row before me sat Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of the American Jewish University and a Temple Beth Am stalwart. He was there with a large group of family and friends. Rabbi Dorff is Adam Kligfeld’s father-in-law. If he was nervous, he hid it well.
By then, I was nervous. I came to shul that morning to hear 13-year-old Shifrah, but found myself sucked into the day’s high drama. Shifrah had completed most of the service — flawlessly, movingly — in the downstairs Library Minyan. Then, because it was Judgment Day, the hundreds of people in the downstairs minyan joined the temple’s other congregants in the main sanctuary, so that everyone could have a chance to hear Kligfeld.
As search committee chair Mark Wolf explains on the temple’s Web site, each candidate will spend two days at Beth Am. They will attend the daily minyan; meet with staff of the synagogue and its school, Pressman Academy; observe classes in Pressman’s pre-school, elementary and middle schools; conduct a “Rap with the Rabbi” for teens; participate in Friday evening services and give a brief word of Torah; and speak about a current topic before a communitywide Shabbat dinner. And that’s just Friday.
“On Saturday,” Wolf continues, “the candidates will teach Mishnah before davening in the morning, present a formal drash to the whole community in the sanctuary after Musaf and lead the teaching at Seudah Shlisheet in the afternoon. Additionally, synagogue leadership will have the opportunity to spend some time with each candidate in more formal settings.”
More formal settings?
Kligfeld arranged his sheaf of notes to speak, and I thought of the unreal demands the modern shul puts on its rabbi. In how many other jobs are you called on to be a scholar, a teacher, a fundraiser, an administrator, an inspirational speaker, a personal counselor? You must relate to the sick, the single, the elderly and even teenagers. You better be spiritually attuned and financially astute, up-to-date on every burning issue from stem cell research to Israeli politics — and have a great sense of humor.
And, that’s not all. At a time when members are scarce, competition is fierce and dollars are tight, synagogues rely on their senior rabbis to be their brand, to carry the institution’s name and identity into the marketplace. So it couldn’t hurt to be telegenic, charismatic, and an activist.
And the burdens of leadership don’t just fall on rabbis. In our complicated times, it seems we push every tough problem off our shoulders and up the chain, waiting for someone, somehow to make it right. Whether it’s a rabbi or an Obama — at a time when leaders seem in short supply, we have a bottomless need and fantastical expectations.
Finally, just as the scent of food from the social hall wafted into the sanctuary, Kligfeld spoke.
“It’s 12:30, the Jews are hungry, and now it’s my time to speak,” he said, and the first of many rolling laughs burst forth from the crowd. The man was funny, erudite, composed. He spoke of the need to balance the Jewish compulsion to break free, to revolutionize, to change, with our desire to remain rooted, “in context,” part of tradition.
Afterward, in the social hall, everyone — shock! — had an opinion.
“You should have heard him Friday night,” said one woman. “He brought me to tears.”
“He didn’t hit it out of the park,” a man— not even a member, mind you — shrugged.
“I like that he’s young,” another woman, well into her 80s said. “He’ll grow with us.”