The Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly does not want to waste the expertise of long-term rabbis who retire from their congregations. Nor does it want to make life any harder than it has to be for those congregations that lose their long-term rabbis.
To accomplish both ends, the RA has devised the interim rabbi system, sending experienced rabbis to rabbi-bereft congregations for a period of two years “to provide a bridge between the previous and incoming rabbi.”
In fact, said Rabbi Steven Bayar, interim rabbi of Fair Lawn’s Temple Beth Sholom since February 1, “an interim rabbi is not allowed to become [that congregation’s] permanent rabbi. It’s a smart policy,” he added. “We don’t want an interim rabbi coming in with an agenda. He has to be the bridge and the recorder” — that is, the interim rabbi should learn the congregation’s practices and pass them on, so the next rabbi will have an accurate way of knowing about them.
Rabbi Bayar joins Cantor David Krasner in leading the congregation after the retirement of Rabbi Alberto (Baruch) Zeilicovich in December.
Rabbi Bayar, who jokes that his previous congregation, B’nai Israel in Millburn — which he served from 1989 until 2019 — “let me out early for good behavior,” still spends his days as a Judaic studies teacher at the Golda Och Academy in West Orange, where he has taught for many years. While his home is in Springfield, he will spend his weekends in Fair Lawn.
“I’m enjoying it so far,” he said. “I’m trying to call as many people as possible while we’re getting our adult education program ready. We’re also getting ready for Purim,” which will feature hybrid services — a limited number of daveners will be permitted in the building while Megillah readings also are Zoomed or livestreamed.
“I’m just trying to get to know the leadership of the synagogue and the leadership style,” he said. But he’s learned other things as well. “I learned that some of my closest friends grew up in Fair Lawn and that the Nabisco factory closed.” And last Sunday “we did our first annual hamantaschen-latkes debate with Shomrei Torah” —Wayne’s Conservative congregation, headed by Rabbi Randall Mark — “and beat them so badly they didn’t know what hit them.”
During his time in Fair Lawn, he said, he will focus mostly on adult programs, since his days will be taken up with teaching duties at Golda Och. “My days are not free,” he said, noting that he’ll be available for his synagogue duties in the late afternoon, evenings, and weekends.
“When I hand off a congregation to a new rabbi, I want to hand off a congregation that has a fairly good idea of its identity and is ready for a new rabbi,” he said. “There are things a congregation is used to, and they may not even be conscious of being used to these things. A new rabbi will change things no matter what.” His job, he said, is to “make them aware that there will be changes, and make them as comfortable as possible.”
Rabbi Bayar, who has three children and five grandchildren, said he believes he is a good rabbi “because my parents raised me to be a mensch.” He also has a sense of humor. “You can’t succeed in the rabbinate without a sense of humor,” he said. One of his teachers explained the concept of a “symbolic exemplar. He said don’t take things personally. Have compassion. When a congregant deals with a rabbi, they see you as more than a human being. You must live up to that.”
The rabbi, executive director of JSurge (JSurge.org ) “a transdenominational organization bringing Judaism — in all of its dynamic forms and shapes — to those exploring or deepening their Jewish identity, knowledge or practice across a spectrum of immersive spaces,” according to its website, writes frequently on that platform “about the status of Judaism, and his experience.” He also is a regular contributor to the Times of Israel.
Writing is his hobby, he said. He is the co-author with Francine Hirschman of “Teens & Trust: Building Bridges in Jewish Education”; with Ilene Strauss of “Rachel & Mischa”; and with Naomi Eisenberger of “You Shall Teach Them Diligently to Your Children: Transmitting Jewish Values from Generation to Generation.”
He was the lead author of the ZIV/Giraffe Curriculum (Righteous Person’s Foundation) and, as co-founder of Ikkar Publishing, has written more than 40 curricula ranging from the “Philosophy of Moshe Chaim Luzzatto” to “Teaching Jewish Theology through Science Fiction and Fantasy.”
Synagogues have been very creative during the pandemic, he said. “It’s fascinating to see. It will change the way we view our synagogues and the way we interact as clergy and congregants. It’s a good thing, a time of transition.”
Having been given this challenge, synagogues must either “keep up or drop out,” he said. “Those willing to adapt and compete will do very well. It’s an exciting time for halakhah and the evolution of community and the concept of community.”