When Rabbi Camille Shira Angel stepped down last year from San Francisco’s Congregation Sha’ar Zahav, she left a huge hole in the Reform community she had led for more than 15 years.
“For so many of us, Rabbi Angel was the only rabbi we’d known,” said Laura Lowe, the immediate past board president, who also sits on the synagogue’s rabbi search committee. “We just couldn’t picture anyone but her.”
The board consulted with Union of Reform Judaism headquarters, and was advised to hire an interim rabbi instead of immediately seeking a permanent replacement for Angel. “They told us, it’s as if you start dating right after ending a long-term relationship,” Lowe related. “Chances are it won’t be successful, if you haven’t gone through the process of loss you need before moving on.”
So in July 2015, 47-year-old Rabbi Ted Riter arrived to lead the historically LGBT congregation through its transition process.
“They had already started asking themselves the deep questions for six months before I arrived,” said Riter. “After 40 years, it was time for the congregation to look at itself and ask, ‘How do we best serve our community’s needs?’ They needed to give themselves a little breathing space.”
In many ways, Riter typifies today’s interim rabbi. After 16 years as a pulpit rabbi in two Southern California congregations, he went into nonprofit management and then did the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ interim rabbi training. He served as interim rabbi in a congregation in Jackson, Mississippi, before arriving at Sha’ar Zahav, and says that at this stage of his life, he prefers this kind of role.
“My biggest job is asking questions,” he said. “That’s what I really enjoy. I come with fresh eyes, and can see things people might have forgotten about. I can ask the questions no one else wants to.”
At Sha’ar Zahav, his main tasks are helping the congregation heal from the loss of a beloved spiritual leader, and facilitating formal and informal conversations to reach consensus on who they are and what they want from their clergy.
“I have a talent for transformation, for seeing what is and what can be — that’s very exciting for me, helping an entire community not as a knight on a white horse, but as me, without any baggage. Having that freedom of no past and no future allows me to be really present, to help the congregation through this transitional place.”
Riter knows what it’s like to step in right after the departure of a longtime predecessor. It happened to him in one of the congregations he served, when he was hired to replace a rabbi who had been there for 23 years. He says he did a good job, but doesn’t feel it was a healthy situation for him or the congregation.
As an interim rabbi, he can help prevent another congregation from going through the same discomfort.
“Ideally, I probe and push so my successor can start with a clean slate. Rabbi Angel brought so many things to this congregation. I want to seal that legacy, and give the next person enough space not to have to compete with her.”
Riter is staying on for a second year, as Sha’ar Zahav prepares to interview candidates in January or March, in anticipation of hiring a new permanent rabbi by next July. Having him shepherd the congregation through this transition period was a huge help, said Lowe.
“Now it is easier for us to picture someone else” as the synagogue’s rabbi, Lowe said. “We know the skills we are looking for. Some are skills Rabbi Angel had, some are skills Rabbi Riter has. He has been a real gift to our congregation.”