Rabbis seek to adapt as roles change

By Steven A. Rosenberg
Globe Staff / July 14, 2011

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Four leading synagogues north of Boston will have new rabbis leading upcoming Rosh Hashana services, reflecting a trend over the last decade that has seen spiritual leaders stay at their pulpits for shorter periods as their responsibilities have increased.

This year, Peabody’s Temple Ner Tamid, Gloucester’s Temple Ahavat Achim, and Beverly’s Temple B’nai Abraham chose not to renew their rabbis’ contracts. Also, in Newburyport, Congregation Ahavas Achim has replaced its interim rabbi with a new spiritual leader.

While each congregation cited a different reason for the change in leadership, all of the moves reflect a changing landscape at most area synagogues - which have declined in membership since peaking more than 25 years ago - and for the role of the rabbi. Once seen primarily as an educator who was responsible for leading services, delivering sermons, providing counseling, and burying the congregation’s dead, rabbis were often given lifetime contracts.

But over the last few decades, intermarriage and a decrease in synagogue affiliation have pushed temples into sur vival mode, offering shorter contracts and fewer full-time positions to rabbis while asking the spiritual leaders to take on other assignments - such as membership outreach, fund-raising, and public relations - that were once unthinkable for pulpit rabbis.

“We would love our new rabbi to bring in new members; to grow membership and the religious school,’’ said Peabody’s Temple Ner Tamid president, Scott Feinstein. The temple has replaced Rabbi David Klatzker with Rabbi Deborah Zuker.

Zuker will start her new post this fall. According to Feinstein, the temple reached its peak more than 20 years ago, when it had more than 400 family members. These days, it has 250.

Klatzker, who served Ner Tamid for 13 years, has accepted an interim post at a Long Beach, Calif., synagogue. While Feinstein denied that finances played a role in the rabbi’s contract not being renewed, Klatzker asserted that money was a key issue in his departure. Klatzker believes synagogues offer too many programs - ranging from card clubs to athletics - and, in order to grow membership, should return to focusing on the spiritual.

“Each congregation has to go through its own process of discernment; they have to decide what their mission is - but the point is they certainly can’t do everything well. They have to think about new ways of reaching out and educating people about Judaism,’’ said Klatzker.

In Beverly, Temple B’nai Abraham president Alan Pierce acknowledged that finances did play a role in the synagogue’s decision not to offer outgoing Rabbi Steven Rubenstein a new contract.

“Our decision was partly financial. Rabbi Rubenstein had been here for 12 years and we were looking for somebody at a lesser salary,’’ said Pierce, who expects to name a rabbi by the fall.

Pierce said the temple’s new rabbi would be charged with overseeing services, adult education, leading social justice projects, and reaching out to interfaith families. Rubenstein is moving to Colorado to serve as a rabbi for a senior care facility.

At Gloucester’s Temple Ahavat Achim, Rabbi Samuel Barth will leave at the end of July after a five-year stint and be replaced by an interim rabbi, Steven Lewis. Barth, who succeeded long-time rabbi Myron Geller, led the congregation during a period in which its temple burned down and was rebuilt. Barth, who could not be reached for comment, is taking a position at a rabbinical seminary in New York.

Dan Kramer, Ahavat Achim’s president, said the decision to hire a different rabbi was consistent with the congregation’s desire to grow and implement its strategic plan. Kramer also said any successor to Geller, the congregation’s popular rabbi emeritus, would have faced transitional challenges.

“Those were big shoes to fill and it would have been difficult for anyone to succeed,’’ said Kramer.

In Newburyport, Rabbi Avi Poupko will replace Rabbi Melissa Wenig. Poupko, a former Harvard Hillel rabbi, will work part-time but will lead services, teach Hebrew School, reach out to interfaith families, and serve as the face of the congregation to the general community, said Congregation Ahavas Achim president Ron Pressler.

Pressler says smaller congregations like Ahavas Achim - with about 90 member units - can only function with a part-time spiritual leader. In the late 1970s, it became one of the first temples on the North Shore to operate with lay leadership, and only in recent years hired ordained rabbis to lead the shul. Other synagogues in Salem, Saugus, and Revere have part-time spiritual leaders.

Benjamin Entine, a Lynn lawyer and former president of Lynn’s Congregation Ahabat Sholom, believes that an increase in rabbinical seminaries in the US combined with changing demographics, and a downturn in affiliation has helped to redefine the role of the pulpit rabbi.

“It’s almost like we’ve evolved from the perception of the rabbi as a revered spiritual leader to a position in which more commonly he or she is considered a communal professional,’’ said Entine, who earned a doctorate at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. “His or her leverage has been eroded by a changing ethos.’’

Steven A. Rosenberg can be reached at