In May 1984, Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C., suddenly found itself with a rabbinic opening when the congregation’s longtime spiritual leader, Rabbi Philip Rabinowitz, was found murdered in his home.
For the next few years, a combination of congregants and, for a short time, a rabbi who left for Hillel work, performed the congregation’s teaching, preaching and counseling activities until Rabbi Barry Freundel took over the pulpit in 1989.
He continued until October 2014, when Kesher Israel again found itself with a rabbinic opening when it fired Freundel after he was arrested on multiple counts of voyeurism for spying on women as they disrobed for the mikvah.
This time, the congregation did not look immediately for a full-time rabbi to replace Freundel. Instead, after a half-year search, the congregation announced in the summer of 2015 that Rabbi Avidan Milevsky, a psychotherapist and associate professor of psychology at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, would serve as interim rabbi until a full-time permanent rabbi was hired.
In deciding to engage an interim rabbi, the Modern Orthodox synagogue joined a trend outside its own denomination, but one that is growing in the liberal Jewish world; in recent years a growing number of non-Orthodox synagogues have seen the advantage of putting a transitional spiritual leader in place when a congregation faces an empty pulpit because of death, retirement, or, in the case of Kesher Israel, scandal.
“We’ve had the same rabbi for 25 years; we couldn’t just jump into a process without knowing and understanding how our community has changed over that time,” said the synagogue’s president, Elanit Rothschild Jakabovics. “Jumping into a permanent search would not have been the right thing to do.”
In the Reform movement, which utilizes most of the interim rabbis in this country, 23 men and women are serving in those positions this year, said Rabbi Alan Henkin, director of rabbinic placement at the Central Conference of American Rabbis. One is serving a Reconstructionist congregation; the rest are in Reform synagogues.
“A synagogue’s work with a trained interim rabbi allows time for thoughtful, intentional work, strengthening congregations for a healthy search process of their new rabbinic leader,” Henkin said. “Once congregations hear about the specialized training our interim rabbis are provided, they usually understand … the unique benefits of working with an interim rabbi.”
“When a congregation’s rabbi leaves, the community may perceive itself ‘stuck between two worlds,’ juggling the shul’s governance while imagining a different synagogue under new rabbinic leadership,” Rabbi Deborah Prinz, former director of program and member services for the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis, wrote in a 2012 essay, “When Do You Need an Interim Rabbi?”
“Experts in Christian settings, where interim ministry has long been understood as very valuable, explain that membership and budget remain stable during the interim period,” Prinz wrote. “This work shifts the attention from the previous rabbi’s strengths or weaknesses and avoids a frequent reactive decision about the new rabbi.”
One of an interim rabbi’s chief responsibilities is to “prepare the congregation for the new rabbi,” said Rabbi Darryl Crystal, who is now serving at Temple Beth David in Westwood, Massachusetts, one of 11 interim positions he has held. “The goal of an interim rabbi is to help a congregation articulate its vision.
“There are always interim jobs,” Crystal said. “I’m a turn-around consultant. It’s very fascinating and important work. Some rabbis only want to go to a congregation where there’s been an interim. You’re setting up [the new rabbi] for success.”
Pittsburgh’s Jewish Chronicle newspaper recently reported on a successful interim rabbi there — Amy Levin, at Beth Sholom the area’s largest Conservative congregation.
Levin, who spent a year at Beth Sholom after completing a consulting course offered by the Alban Institute, helped guide a synagogue that faced “financial challenges, clergy and administration staff vacancies and a clash of personalities among its lay leaders,” the Jewish Chronicle reported.
The rabbi took part in the congregation’s search for a new executive director, addressed “congregational dynamics,” created a website that facilitated the search for a full-time rabbi, and steered a series of conversations about the qualities that members sought in a new spiritual leader.
“She certainly helped us get over some of the turmoil leading into her arrival,” said David Horvitz, Beth Sholom’s president.
“It’s a gratifying role, this interim role,” Levin said. “This sense of leaving a congregation in better shape than I found it is tremendous.”
In the past, a congregation with an unexpected pulpit opening would turn to a known rabbi nearby — someone retired, or working as a teacher or in another job — to fill in for a while. Today, especially in the Reform and Conservative movements, a formal structure is in place.
Representatives of Reform Judaism, which has developed an extensive training and certification program for interim rabbis — Conservative Judaism has a smaller-scale training program — stress that an interim rabbi is not simply someone with rabbinical ordination and some free time.
“Not every [rabbi] can step in and be a successful interim rabbi,” Crystal said.
The growth in the interim rabbinate is a sign of change in the Jewish world; many congregations, facing diminishing membership, are more cautious about whom they hire. And it’s also a sign of change in the rabbinate itself; many people with rabbinic ordination find the change of pace offered by interim posts more satisfying than a long-term job in a single congregation.
The interim rabbinate, the Reform leaders said, is becoming virtually a separate career path, ideal for people who enjoy its peripatetic lifestyle, who appreciate the challenge of stepping into a congregation that has suffered a loss at the leadership level and who have specialized training in and an aptitude for such areas as conflict resolution and systems analysis.
“This is their rabbinate,” not a compromise from a traditional pulpit job, said Rabbi Steve Fox, the CEO of Reform’s CCAR. Henkin calls the interim rabbinate “the 21st-century version of the circuit-riding rabbi,” itinerant rabbis who would serve congregations in a large geographic region, particularly in the South.
“The status of the interim rabbi has risen over the last few years,” said Rabbi David Katz, who served until this summer as interim rabbi at Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York. He took the post after Rabbi Douglas Krantz, who founded the congregation, left for a teaching position at the University of Delaware.
“People [in congregations] see the advantage of a change agent,” said Katz, a veteran of several interim pulpits who served at Temple Israel Reform Congregation of Staten Island for 16 years. But, he added, it’s not for everyone. “It’s somewhat of a nomadic life — it’s packing and repacking and unpacking.”
A version of this article originally appeared at www.thejewishweek.com and is reprinted here with permission.