A Reform rabbi starting a new job this summer in St. Louis will not have to look far to find someone having a similar experience.
Four rabbis — including a St. Louis native — will join Central Reform Congregation, Congregation Shaare Emeth and United Hebrew Congregation in July.
“I think it bodes really well for our Jewish community that we are viewed as viable and vibrant (and that) we have all these wonderful, new, young rabbis coming to town,” said Rabbi Jim Bennett of Shaare Emeth.
Synagogue leaders say their congregations are filling a void or slightly changing their approaches.
Some of the newcomers also know one another from their time in rabbinical school and at workshops.
“New rabbis aren’t as set in their ways, and I think there is a lot of potential for collaboration,” said Rabbi Karen Bogard, 34.
She became friends in Cincinnati with Rabbi Adam Bellows, who is coming to United Hebrew. Bogard was at a Conservative congregation; Bellows was at Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s rabbinical school.
The new rabbi Bogard is closest to, however, is her husband, Daniel, 35, who will join her at CRC, his childhood congregation. The two will be working part-time, filling the role of one assistant rabbi – or technically “one job and a quarter,” Daniel Bogard says. They had the same arrangement at the Conservative congregation they are leaving.
The Bogards don’t know yet how they will split up responsibilities when they start at CRC in July, Daniel said. Previously, he had focused on the education of people of high school age and older, and Karen had focused on the younger groups. As far as lifecycle events and pastoral care, “We really let it divide naturally,” he said.
“Karen has a nontraditional approach to her rabbinate and is big on the idea that synagogue shouldn’t be the place you go to ‘do Jewish’ but the place you go to learn Jewish things and values to do with the rest of your life,” Daniel said.
For example, at a synagogue in Peoria, Ill.,Karen Bogard launched a program called Community Supported Judaism in which participants received everything “they needed for that month to live Jewishly.”
“I was trying to help people who are on their Jewish journey and meet them where they are and push them a little further,” she said.
On differences between her and Daniel, she said: “We think really differently. I am much more about details and writing a lesson plan and executing that, and he is more of a big-picture thinker.”
Parents of three, the Bogards like the part-time, collaborative approach despite the fact that there are economic costs to making this decision.
“We certainly would have more salary if we both worked full-time jobs, but there aren’t a lot of people who look back on their lives and wish they had less time with their kids when they were younger,” said Daniel. “We are really fortunate and lucky [that] we are in a position where we can make it work.”
Bogard said there is no way he would have become a rabbi if it weren’t for CRC Rabbis Susan Talve and Randy Fleisher, and Talve’s husband, Rabbi Jim Goodman of Neve Shalom.
“I grew up with Rabbi Talve; she literally officiated at my bris. She is the image I have in my head of what a rabbi is supposed to be,” Bogard said. Fleisher was his sixth grade Sunday school teacher and “changed my life by putting a guitar in my hands.” And on Goodman: “I think so much of my sense of spirituality and connection to Judaism comes” through his “poetry and music and kindness.”
Is there a downside to a couple working as “one and a quarter” rabbis?
“It certainly makes our lives easier, especially because we like different parts of the job,” said Karen, who is originally from Memphis. “But there are times when our pillow talk is congregational, and that’s not fun.”
CRC had previously just used rabbinic interns or rabbis on a temporary basis in addition to Talve and Fleisher, said Alene Becker, a board member who co-chaired the search committee. The congregation has experienced “steady growth,” she said, and they were hoping to add a new rabbi on a more permanent basis.
During a strategic planning five years ago, “We recognized that both of our rabbis are here to stay — which is a good thing. And so we wanted to make sure that we had more youth and rabbis who would be able to connect with our younger families,” said Becker. The fact that it’s “rabbis” rather than “rabbi” is a bonus, she added.
Synthesizing a love of Judaism
Even if other Reform rabbis don’t know Bellows, 34, they may know his song, “Shabba, Shabba.” He describes it as his breakout hit, and it’s played at Jewish Community Center camps around Chicago and at synagogues in New York and Washington, D.C., among other places. And it is likely to enter the St. Louis market via United Hebrew.
“He is musical, and music is certainly a big part of our congregation,” said Rabbi Brigitte Rosenberg, who interviewed Bellows, a student at Hebrew Union College. “We were very taken with him, taken with his energy, taken with his ideas and with his enthusiasm.”
Bellows, who is married with two children, grew up in the Chicago suburbs where his mother was a cantor at a Reform synagogue.
“I have always been comfortable in a synagogue, and some of my earliest memories are of climbing up the bimah as a baby,” he said.
Bellows became a song leader at camps and congregations and later became director of youth programming at a Chicago synagogue before starting rabbinical school.
“I knew I wanted to help people and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in social justice, and I knew that I wanted to synthesize that with my love for Judaism, and I knew that becoming a rabbi felt right for me,” he said.
That desire to help people led him to Flint, Mich., when more than 100,000 residents were exposed to water contaminated with unsafe levels of lead.
Bellows was not an assistant rabbi; he was the only rabbi (minus the ordination) of a small Reform congregation. Starting in Aug. 2015, he traveled there every other weekend for almost a year. He organized forums for the local Jewish community to “figure out what we can do to help and what kind of help our community may need.”
Bellows said he worked with the local Jewish Federation to develop a message to send to people who wanted to help. The message was “Send money, not water,’ because there is only so much water that people can move around physically and logistically. We said, ‘We really need you to start sending money to charities that are focused on the children.’ Because the damage that the lead in the water is doing to the children of Flint is much more concerning because the soft tissues in their bodies are still developing.”
“It was a really transformative to be up there during the water crisis, to be given an opportunity to step up and do my best to help those who are suffering.”
Rosenberg said she and the United Hebrew President David Rostenstock were impressed with the way Bellows acted during that time.
“I think when any community has some sort of crisis, clergy get called upon, and to be a student and to have the wherewithal to call the mentors and rabbis that you have been working with and say, ‘How do I help?’ ” Rosenberg said.
When he arrives at United Hebrew in July, Bellows said, he will take a similar approach.
“My personal goal will be to listen and get to know the congregation and the St. Louis community as a whole and really get to know how I can help with the skills that I bring,” he said.
Embracing Judaism at a young age
Lori Levine has known she wanted to be a rabbi since middle school.
“After my bat mitzvah, I was really inspired by that experience,” said Levine, who will join Shaare Emeth as its new rabbi educator in July. “At a time when a lot of teens are pushing away from their synagogues, from Jewish life, and questioning it, I really ran toward it and embraced it.”
Levine, 29, will run the religious school, succeeding Liessa Alperin, who will join Congregation B’nai Amoona as director of innovative education and engagement.
Levine will soon have a rabbinical degree — her ordination is in May — and a master’s in education from Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles.
In addition to the religious school director “because she is an ordained rabbi, Rabbi Levine will also be part of our clergy team and participating with (the other clergy) in serving the pastoral needs of the congregation and doing programming for the whole congregation, working with us in the development and creativity in terms of offering a more diverse worship program – all the various things that rabbis do,” Rabbi Bennett said.
Levine, who is from New Jersey, said St. Louis was her first choice.
“It was the combination of the location and the team” at Shaare Emeth, said Levine, who is married. “I think there are wonderful opportunities for me to learn and grow.”
The idea that St. Louis could be someone’s first choice goes against some of the negative conceptions of the city.
“People decry St. Louis and say, ‘Oh, it’s such a Midwestern, blasé place.’ But the truth is St. Louis is an amazing, vibrant, appealing Jewish community,” Bennett said. “And I think the fact that all these rabbis want to come here signifies that.”