Temple Emanuel names new senior rabbi

Elizabeth Hersh is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel (TE), and a blogger on the Jewish Light’s website (stljewishlight.com).   Joel Iskiwitch and John DeMott, authors of the  “What can you do?”  sidebar, are congregants at TE.

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

Rabbi Elizabeth Hersh has been named the new senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel, a Reform congregation of roughly 230 families in Creve Coeur. She will assume her duties beginning June 1. 

Hersh comes to Temple Emanuel after most recently serving as Chaplain for St. Louis Jewish Family and Children’s Service. Previously, she served as Rabbi, Director of Hebrew and Religious School, and Director of Education at temples in Sydney and Perth, Australia.  Prior to her service in Australia, she served as assistant rabbi, associate rabbi and rabbi at United Hebrew Congregation in St. Louis for 10 years.

“I am elated that such a privilege has been bestowed on me,” said Hersh, 46. “I am really excited to return to congregational life. I believe I bring a wealth of experience with me from living overseas twice and working in the Jewish community there, and especially from my work at Jewish Family and Children’s Service, where I loved serving the elderly. I’m coming back to a congregation as a more complete rabbi and have felt so embraced by both the leadership and the congregants at Temple Emanuel.”

Steve Strauss, president of Temple Emanuel, explained a national search for a new rabbi begun last fall led the search committee back to St. Louis and Rabbi Hersh.

“She is absolutely perfect for us,” said Strauss. “The more we moved along in the search process, the more it became obvious to me and the rest of the search committee that we couldn’t find anyone else better for us than Rabbi Hersh. We really feel fortunate that she was right here in our backyard.”

Strauss said that Hersh shares the same vision for Temple Emanuel as its membership, noting that while other area temples talk about merging and growing their congregant base, Temple Emanuel remains committed to being an intimate congregation. 

“Since our inception over 50 years ago, it has been important to us to maintain the closeness of our membership so that we’ll never lose that all-important feeling of family within our sanctuary walls,” he said.

Hersh says the size of Temple Emanuel is a big plus because it allows for a unique intimacy. “It’s as important to me as it is to them that I get to know every congregant not only by name, but also by what is going on in their lives,” she said. “I want to be able to say ‘hi’ and find out how that hip replacement surgery went or how their daughter’s graduation turned out.

“To me, it’s all about strong and meaningful relationships. I’m excited about getting to know each and every member personally.  I feel I am getting a gift with this appointment and will learn and grow from serving the membership of Temple Emanuel.”

Rabbi Joseph R. Rosenbloom, who has served Temple Emanuel for the past 52 years, has been filling in as senior rabbi since the departure last May of Rabbi Justin Kerber, who was in that senior rabbi position from 2009 until 2012.

Prior to Kerber, Rosenbloom, who has been at the congregation since 1961, took on an interim position as spiritual leader in 2008 with the departure of Rabbi Joshua Taub, who elected not to renew his contract. Once Rabbi Hersh comes on board, Rosenbloom will resume his permanent position of Rabbi Emeritus and Senior Scholar at Temple Emanuel.

 “I am absolutely thrilled (about Rabbi Hersh). We are very fortunate to have her – she is the perfect fit for us,” said Rosenbloom.  “Elizabeth has all the marvelous qualities that our congregants need: empathy, passion, and a strong knowledge of the Jewish faith.  She has a wonderful heart, she loves people and she wants to be involved.”

Rosenbloom related a story about an elderly woman at a local nursing facility that Hersh recently went to visit. The woman also is a member of Temple Emanuel.

“After Elizabeth’s visit, this woman was so touched and impressed she called me and said, ‘please hire her.’ (The woman) even sent in an absentee vote because she couldn’t make the meeting,” where congregants voted to hire Hersh, said Rosenbloom.

Strauss said the congregation voted unanimously at a meeting last Friday to hire Hersh. Although he couldn’t divulge the terms of her contract, he said it was one of the longest the temple had ever considered.

“I don’t know the particulars of Joe’s (Rabbi Rosenbloom) but obviously he has been with us for a very long time,” said Strauss. “All I can say is that Elizabeth is like Joe. If you like Joe, you are going to like Elizabeth. Like him, she understands us, and where we want to be and what we want to change and don’t want to change. We are in total agreement as to how Temple Emanuel should proceed into the future.”

Hersh said leaving JF&CS was “bittersweet,” adding that, “it’s an amazing place to work.” She said any time she had challenging moments with nursing homes or in serving the elderly, “all of the social workers there had an open door and welcomed me to come talk with them. JF&CS will never be far from my heart or my mind.”

Louis Albert, executive director of JF&CS, said in her role as Chaplain, Hersh “brought a unique mix of passion, compassion and energy that drew isolated elderly closer into our Jewish community.”

“We will miss her greatly at JF&CS, but know that she will be a tremendous asset to both Temple Emanuel and to the broader Jewish community as well for many years to come,” he said.

Hersh was ordained by Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, and she holds a Master of Arts in Hebrew Letters.  She is married to Robert Kleinlehrer, and the couple has a son. Both Rosenbloom and United Hebrew’s Rabbi Emeritus Howard Kaplansky will jointly oversee Hersh’s installation as rabbi of Temple Emanuel June 14.