Decaf and tradition: New Bais Abe rabbi embraces past practice for holidays

Rabbi Garth Silberstein in front of Bais Abraham Congregation. Silberstein started at Bais Abe on Sept. 1.  

By Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

Here’s a pro tip to make it through a 25-hour fast: Lay off caffeine for a couple of weeks.

That’s one way Rabbi Garth Silberstein is preparing for his first High Holidays at Bais Abraham Congregation. Silberstein is planning for the holidays in other ways, too. As the new guy in town, he’s learning the ropes at the 125-year-old congregation. That means sticking with what works.

“One of the things I’ve been doing since I got here is to meet and talk to as many people in the synagogue as I can, to get to know people and to get a sense of the culture,” he said. “Every synagogue does things differently. There are certain things that are halacha, Jewish law, and there are things that are a matter of local custom. 

“What I’ve learned is when you are the rabbi, even if you’ve only been there two weeks, people are going to ask you, ‘How should we do things?’ and often the answer is, ‘Well, what did we do last year?’ There’s a positive value of following the local practice.”

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Silberstein, 39, is a native of Davis, Calif. He joined Bais Abe on Sept. 1 and came to St. Louis from Knesset Israel Torah Center in Sacramento. He is the founder and former director of the Organic Yeshiva in Sacramento, Calif. He received smicha from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and earned bachelor’s degrees in acting and biology from Bennington College. 

At Bais Abe, Silberstein intends to continue the tradition of the synagogue as a welcoming place.

“One of the things I love about Bais Abe and am excited about is that there’s a long tradition here of being an Orthodox synagogue for all kinds of Jews,” he said. “Under (longtime) Rabbi (Abraham) Magence’s leadership, he established a reputation of Bais Abe that is unapologetically Orthodox but embracing and welcoming of every Jew. That’s the model of rabbinic leadership that I want to pursue and the model of the kind of community I want to be a part of.”

Over the past several weeks Silberstein has led a series of classes at Bais Abe to help prepare for the High Holidays. The three-part series, “Preparing for Awe,” examines the High Holiday liturgy.

“The whole idea is to take a look at some of the text that we’ll encounter in the prayer book on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, because we’re encountering texts that we haven’t seen since last year and there’s a lot of them, literally hundreds of pages, and it can be overwhelming. This is a way of explaining the text and offering a space for people to reflect for themselves and how they think about the holidays. In each class, we look at a specific piece and have a discussion around it and the theology, and a space for some reflective spiritual writing to allow people to have some spiritual reflection.”

In terms of longer term goals, Silberstein said, he would like to help develop the next generation of leaders.

“Bais Abe is already a wonderful community, energetic and welcoming and warm,” he said. “In the life of an institution, if you’re not growing, you’re in trouble. So one of the things I want to work on is articulating what our values as a mission and a community are and cultivating the next gen of synagogue leadership. In a healthy organization and a healthy community, you’re constantly cultivating new leadership to share the burden of work and spread it out, but also to bring new ideas and new energy to the community.

“My long term goals are to cultivating more voices in leadership. Bais Abe has a well-deserved reputation for being welcoming and inclusive, and I know there are ways to be more welcoming and inclusive. We need to identify areas where we can be doing a better job of welcoming every Jew who wants to come through our doors.”

Silberstein is also eager to carry on the tradition of an institution that’s been part of the fabric of the St. Louis Jewish community for more than a century.

“For me, there’s something interesting in being part of a community that’s been around for over 100 years,” he said. “What’s more interesting than how long this particular institution has existed is the culture that we’ve built over those decades.

“All over the country, people describe Bais Abe as a place where they felt welcome, they felt embraced, they felt Judaism was something that that was joyful and positive and there was room for everyone. That history and that culture is something that I’m really excited about plugging into.”

As Silberstein settles into his new home in St. Louis at a busy time of year, he’s ready for what’s coming up next month. Cutting back on caffeine the week or two before Rosh Hashanah helps prepare for the marathon of the High Holidays, but he said there are other ways a rabbi can conserve energy and maintain the right balance.

“I find fasting on Yom Kippur much easier than Tisha B’Av, which is the other 25-hour fast we have,” he said. “During Yom Kippur, I’m too busy to think about the fact that I’m tired or hungry. Adrenalin pushes me through. 

“For me as a rabbi, working on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, at some point during the day, I’m able to carve out five minutes for my own spiritual experience. Most of the day, I’m thinking about the community and the flow of the services and who’s speaking when. But it’s important to find those moments when I can put my tallis over my head and have my own prayer experience.”