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The New Rabbi

When I was a kid, my parents had a Jewish bookshelf. On it were three kinds of books. There were, of course, prayer books and bibles: some ours, some “accidentally” brought home from the synagogue and someday to be returned. There were handsomely bound scholarly or historic books, most accepted as gifts and never read, except to look up something for Hebrew school. And then there were novels, like The Chosen and the “Tuesday the Rabbi” books and even Exodus --the pulpit fiction of the day, where the struggle between religious life and real life was explored in language that anyone could understand: the human drama of the intersection of the divine and the secular, the battles between God and man and American culture, the searches for spiritual awakening and the perfect bar mitzvah caterer.

To broach these same subjects in non-fiction, especially the emotional and financial intricacies of American synagogue life, was considered dangerous, “bad for the Jews.” And, to this day, that’s still basically true. While Jewish bookshelves now teem with a new genre, spiritual self-help and how-to books, there is still very little journalism on the lives of American Jews as Jews. The scarcity is such that a recent book on American rabbis actually resorted to using many examples drawn from fiction—including quotes from fictitious rabbis—to illustrate points that everyone knows to be true, but almost no one dares to write down in narrative non-fiction.

When I first started writing books in my late twenties, I thought about following a congregation while it hired a new spiritual leader as a dramatic way of telling a true story about American religion. I was inspired by the fact that a change of clergy in my own hometown synagogue, when I was eleven, had made an indelible impact on my family and my community. You never forget your first rabbi.
But it was just a one-line book idea, and I was, at that time, only tangentially involved in religious life. I was a six-day-a-year Jew--doing the High Holidays, Hanukah and two Seders on Passover—which I suppose made me twice as good as the traditional three-day-a-year Jew, but still far from observant or spiritually engaged. So I wrote other books instead.

Then, when I was about to turn forty, my father died. He was only sixty-two. And after years as a wandering Jew, I found myself attending synagogue regularly for the first time since I had set out from my bar mitzvah reception in Sisterhood Hall with my breast pocket stuffed with gift envelopes. I returned for completely selfish reasons: I needed comfort, and the synagogue happened to be a place where I found it.

I took comfort, and I also began taking notes, because I was finding the day-to-day life of the congregation to be endlessly dramatic. Its survival seemed somehow crucial to my own survival. And I started thinking again about a book that would resonate within my generation as the first wave of religious novels had in the 1960s for both Jews and non-Jews. I decided to combine my newfound search for spiritual meaning with my experience as an investigative reporter, and to capture the interior life, the sacred and the profane, of a great American synagogue at the delicate moment of generational hand-off.

At any time, many of the four thousand synagogues and more than 230,000 churches around the country find themselves in the heartwrenching process of trying to hire new clergy. In doing so, their leaders must anticipate what future generations will expect from their religious institutions. No longer just houses of prayer, they are now big businesses responsible for delivering all kinds of religious services. Failure to deliver will put spiritual as well as financial solvency at risk.

It just so happened that an extraordinary synagogue, Har Zion Temple in Philadelphia, had recently hung the equivalent of a help-wanted sign—by registering its pulpit opening with the national rabbis’ “union,” the Rabbinical Assembly of America. Not only was Har Zion an internationally famous congregation, but the rabbi they were replacing was the very one who had been hired away from my synagogue when I was a kid: Gerald I. Wolpe (WOHL-pee).

Har Zion is one of the most powerful and influential congregations in the world. Few American synagogues have produced as many prominent rabbis and scholars, or can match the congregation’s ability to put its money where its mouth is. Har Zion is, in every way, rich, with an annual budget of over $4 million, an ambitious Hebrew school that is regularly named the best in the country, and a reputation for supporting intellectual pursuits and social causes. The synagogue’s national status has derived from its dominance of the Philadelphia Jewish community, one of the country’s largest, as well as the resolve and wealth of its lay leaders. Har Zion is the home of the big machers. In Yiddish, a macher is someone who is a big deal or has a lot of big deal connections, a person with power or proxy who understands how to get things done. All synagogues have their big machers, but Har Zion has a smorgasbord of them. With fourteen hundred member families, the various subgroups within the congregation are larger than many congregations.

Har Zion is also well known for the success and career longevity of its clergy: since its creation in 1924, the synagogue has had only three rabbis, each a giant in his own way. Founding rabbi Simon Greenberg left after twenty-five years to become one of the most important voices in the American clergy as vice chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in New York, which has been considered the Harvard of Judaism. He was later the first leader of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, which is every bit Judaism’s Stanford.

Greenberg’s successor, Rabbi David Goldstein, revolutionized Judaism in a much more regional way, helping to devise and fund many of the institutions—day schools, gyms, summer camps—that became national models for how Jews could create their own American-style communities. It was Goldstein who cemented the synagogue’s role in the intellectual life of Judaism by creating the country’s first major synagogue scholar-in-residence program. Among his scholars-in-residence was a young Chaim Potok, who ran services at the synagogue’s satellite campus in the suburbs in the early sixties and went on to write The Chosen and several other best sellers during his association with Har Zion. Potok and his wife later quit, as did many others, when the congregation elected in the early seventies to leave the ethnically mixed neighborhood of its birth for a suburban setting. While this was happening to houses of worship all over the country, during what came to be called “white flight,” it was Har Zion’s exodus that Newsweek chose to focus on for its cover story on the subject.

By then Har Zion had a new rabbi, Wolpe, who was lured from my hometown synagogue in 1969. A brilliant orator and politician, with a feisty wife and four brainy sons, Wolpe was hired to hold the synagogue together during its uprooting to the suburban Main Line, where its congregants had been relocating after the “there goes the neighborhood” housing restrictions against Jews started to lift after World War II. (It was this intersection of traditional Main Line and Jewish cultures that led a Philadelphia sociologist to coin the term “WASP”—used originally as an abbreviation because White Anglo-Saxon Protestant wouldn’t fit on the axis of a graph about social migration trends.)

Wolpe was brought in to save Har Zion from itself. During what would become a thirty-year tenure, he helped the synagogue, and American Judaism, reinvent itself in the new “post-war era”--the one after Vietnam, the Yom Kippur War in Israel, and the civil rights and sexual revolutions in America. But he became best known for his response to a private event that almost ended his career. At the height of his rabbinate, Wolpe’s wife, Elaine, wife suffered a stroke. But, instead of leaving the pulpit, he shared the pain and medical dilemmas of her long recovery with the congregation, expressing and evoking emotion in a place where reason and power had traditionally held sway.

In his last act of bravery as a pulpit rabbi, Wolpe agreed to grant me unprecedented access to the private life of his synagogue at this pivotal moment in its history. His wife and family also cooperated fully, including his two sons who are rabbis—especially the celebrated clergyman and author David Wolpe in Los Angeles. Eventually, I was also the beneficiary of extraordinary cooperation from congregational leaders and members at Har Zion, from the grand poo-bahs of rabbinic placement at the Rabbinical Assembly, and from rabbis from across the country who vied for the Har Zion job while their congregations were also seeking new clergy. And I was able “cover” an enormous number of religious services--and then eat heartily at the post-prayer luncheons (especially the little cakes with the bar mitzvah boy’s name iced on them.) So much of my reporting was done within reach of a buffet table that I could have titled the book Chafing Dish.

While this book mixes various aspects of investigative reporting and two kinds of memoir—Rabbi Wolpe’s and, to a much lesser degree my own—it is wholly a work of non-fiction. Even Rabbi Wolpe’s memories of his own career were independently fact-checked. Since Hebrew words and Yiddish expressions are part of the shorthand of synagogue life, I’ve done my best to help the reader talk the talk. Those terms which have not become part of standard English (as bar mitzvah has) are noted in italics when they first appear and then in standard type, because in this multilingual world they are not really foreign words. The trickiest part, however, comes with pluralization, because two different styles tend to be used interchangeably by American Jews. The proper Hebrew plural of bar mitzvah, for example, is b’nai mitzvah, but it is more common to hear the Americanized slang “bar mitzvahs.” In general, I have deferred to the way people really speak. When there are two terms for the same thing—for example, a skullcap, which is yarmulkah in the Yiddish often preferred by older American Jews, and kippah in more modern Hebrew—the words are used interchangeably. As for vocalization, most Hebrew words are supposed to be pronounced with the emphasis on the last syllable, but in casual conversation, most Americans instead stress the first syllable.

While I’m not a huge fan of journalistic books with footnotes or endnotes, some readers want or need them. I have therefore made chapter notes available at the website for the book, In general, however, all direct quotes come from taped interviews conducted by me or tapes of events, and all observations of events I did not attend were confirmed by at least one other person who was there.

Har Zion, the synagogue I chose to follow for three years--it was only supposed to be one year, but that’s part of the story--is Conservative, the denomination that has been the most popular and influential among America’s roughly six million Jews, and has also been the most influenced by American culture. My choice is not meant as a reflection on the other major branches of Judaism: in orientation from right to left, Orthodox (which itself is divided into right wing ultra-Orthodox and more liberal “Modern Orthodox”), Conservative, Reform (which in recent years has overtaken Conservative in sheer number of adherents) and Reconstructionist. The “Conservative movement,” as it is often referred to, just happens to be the one in which I was raised. I have done my best to explain how the denominations differ while still remaining a unified Jewish community, and how the competition between them plays out in attracting families “shopping” for synagogues. But it is not my purpose to debate theology.

Most of the issues and problems confronting this congregation at its time of change are not unique to Conservative Jews, or even to Jews in general. Many Christian friends and colleagues have told me about similar dramas in their churches when there is a change in senior clergy. (And everyone seems to agree that, whatever the religion, once chosen, being the spiritual leader of a large house of worship is probably the hardest job in America.) What all Jewish congregations do have in common, however, is that their senior rabbis are spiritual CEOs, holding the title of mara d’atra—“master of the place,” the last word on religious decisions and standards within their communities. Yet a rabbinate is not a dictatorship. While its different branches have slightly different theology and observance, Judaism does not dictate belief. Its timeless appeal is as a religion of questions, not answers.

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Copyright © 2002 by Stephen Fried