A synagogue without a rabbi is like a boat without a sail. During Rosh Hashanah, worshippers can feel particularly adrift as temporary rabbis come in to guide the services. For many years, kehillot (communities) without rabbis have struggled to effectively perform High Holiday services—but no longer.
Thanks to the efforts of The Jewish Theological Seminary’s new Emerging Kehillah Initiative, Conservative Jewish synagogues are being offered rabbinic support in previously underserved areas to provide the spiritual guidance, services, and programs that come with permanent rabbinic leadership. “It’s transformative for the Movement and a way of thinking about shuls that we haven’t done before,” says Rabbi Mychal Springer, associate dean of The Rabbinical School.
Created through funding from the Gladstein Fellowship endowed by Ned and Jane Gladstein of West Caldwell, New Jersey, this first-of-its-kind strategic partnership is designed to bring rabbinic leadership to emerging congregations within the Conservative Movement. Rabbi Daniel Nevins, Pearl Resnick Dean of The Rabbinical School says, “The Gladstein family has been visionary and extra generous in cultivating leadership in small Jewish communities around the country.”
One student from each year of The Rabbinical School is selected to become a Gladstein Fellow. First- and second-year students receive a hands-on orientation by visiting all of the communities involved in the initiative. While in Israel, students from The Rabbinical School are mentored on community building by Masorti rabbis. Fourth- and fifth-year rabbinic students live in either Caldwell, New Jersey, or White Plains, New York, and are mentored by Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Congregation Agudath Israel or Rabbi Gordon Tucker of Temple Israel Center respectively.
In addition to living and working in these “teaching congregations,” Gladstein Fellows travel monthly to emerging synagogues in such communities as Lake Norman, North Carolina, and Skokie, Illinois. Upon ordination, all Gladstein Fellows are required to serve as the full-time rabbi of a small congregation for a minimum of three years. These synagogues can be so small, according to Rabbi Nevins, that the new rabbis may be the only professional employees.
One of these synagogues, Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg, Virginia, is now home to Michael Ragozin, the first graduate of the Emerging Kehillah Initiative. Michael admits that becoming a rabbi at the congregation where he began as an intern was “a godsend, a besheret. I couldn’t do it successfully without the preparation and support I received through the program.”
The Emerging Kehillah Initiative has particular relevance during Rosh Hashanah, says Michael. “A successful High Holiday is essential to establishing oneself as a rabbi, even as a monthly intern. It sets the foundation for a successful year and bonds the rabbi to the congregation.”
This connection is inherent to success as a religious leader, and Michael has quickly forged a union with his congregants. Many have approached him to say they feel supported by JTS and are comfortable getting his counsel on deeply personal issues. After his first Rosh Hashanah sermon, appropriately dedicated to what it means to find a home, one synagogue member even remarked, “That’s exactly what I have been looking for.”
By planting the seeds of spiritual enrichment for a diverse range of Conservative Jews in communities across the country, the Emerging Kehillah Initiative fulfills the needs of both congregants and rabbis alike—far beyond the High Holidays. As Michael says, “It is exactly what I entered rabbinical school to do.”