Rabbi Mark Melamut is in the middle of an interview about his imminent departure from Congregation B’nai Emunah when he’s interrupted by members of the men’s workshop invading his office for a group hug.
That’s been the way the last few weeks have been going for Melamut, who after a decade is leaving the Conservative San Francisco synagogue this summer to take over the pulpit at the Upper Valley Jewish Community congregation in Hanover, New Hampshire.
It’s a bittersweet exit for Melamut, who has had only one job since leaving Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2008 and whose two children grew up at B’nai Emunah.
“Truthfully, it’s been a very emotional and hard move because my wife, my family and I are very involved in the community,” he said. “My daughter, Kinneret, was 6 months old when we moved here. She literally learned to crawl on the bimah, so that’s part of the sweetness here.”
Melamut’s wife, Hayley DeLugach, is a Bay Area native who has been teaching at Jewish Community High School of the Bay since 2008, where she is the co-dean of student life and Jewish life and teaches Jewish studies. She also teaches adults through Kevah and at B’nai Emunah.
The move to New Hampshire means DeLugach will take at least a year off from work to get the family resettled, and that Kinneret, 10, and her 8-year-old brother, Geffen, will go to public schools for the first time, after attending the Brandeis School.
“It was contract renewal time, and we decided that we were ready after 10 years for a change,” Melamut said. “It’s been a little bit of a journey for us, but I think we’re going to be OK.”
B’nai Emunah is in the process of choosing a new rabbi, and synagogue president Jeffrey Dielle said he hopes Melamut’s successor can be hired before the High Holidays in September.
“An awful lot of people would like a clone of Rabbi Mark, to be honest, with very strong interpersonal skills, community-building skills and innovation, particularly in terms of prayer services,” Dielle said. “We would have been very happy if he had decided to stay.”
Melamut will be making a return to New England, where he spent some time after getting a bachelor’s degree in business administration. He later applied to Yale Divinity School and received a master’s degree in religion in 2000 before studying to become a rabbi.
In New Hampshire, Melamut will lead an egalitarian congregation of about 200 families that is about 40 percent Reform, 40 percent Conservative and 20 percent other denominations.
The job until now has been part time and included spiritual leadership at Dartmouth College’s Hillel chapter, but the retirement of the longtime rabbi led the officials at Upper Valley Jewish Community to conclude they needed a full-time rabbi.
B’nai Emunah was founded in 1949 in large part by refugees from Nazi Germany, including founding Rabbi George Kantorowski and others who had fled to Japanese-occupied Shanghai. The late Rabbi Ted Alexander led the congregation for the next 40 years before Melamut took over. It moved around for a quarter-century until acquiring a permanent home in San Francisco’s Outer Sunset District.
The congregation grew from about 90 families to 125 families during Melamut’s tenure, but Dielle said those numbers only tell a part of the story.
“He brought in a large number of younger families, that was really impressive, so it was a qualitative as well as a quantitative change,” Dielle said. “We’re a multigenerational community and, to grow, we obviously need younger people.”