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Jim Simon: Paving the way for his successor

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Describing itself as “a lively and active Reform Congregation of approximately 400 households serving the entire Northern Valley and beyond,” Temple Beth El of the Northern Valley in Closter is ushering in 5772 with an interim rabbi, Jim Simon. He will serve during the coming year as the synagogue searches for a permanent replacement.

Simon comes from Miami, where he maintains his permanent home. He said the nature of the interim rabbinate “is that I don’t know where I’ll be from one year to the next. I go where I can be most helpful.”

The rabbi has been formally trained by the 30-year-old Interim Ministry Network – which, says its website, dedicates itself to the “health and wellness” of congregations. Such wellness is influenced by three kinds of learned leadership skills: “prevention of unhealthy practices before they take root, maintenance of congregational health during times of stress or change, and restorative care when it is required.”

“People who are formally trained by the IMN go to congregations where there has been a trauma of some type – whether conflict, scandal, or death,” said Simon, “something that requires the congregation to take a year to have a rabbi who will help them process this big change and prepare for the future.”

“I’m not a babysitter,” he added. “I’m there as a rabbi but also to help the search and transition committee and to help the board work on a number of issues to help them avoid repeating mistakes of the past.”

“I’m not a big messiah who says ‘Do this’ and ‘Do that,'” he added. “I’m a coach, helper, adviser. My job is to make it easy so when the next rabbi comes, he can hit the ground running.”

Simon, who spent more than 25 years as a pulpit rabbi in the Reform movement, went through his IMN training in 2009.

“It was a chance to do a whole other challenging thing I had the skills for,” he said.

The “rabbi” part of his job in Closter is “easy,” he said, being “basic stuff I have always done: worship, teaching, involvement with life-cycle ceremonies, teaching in the religious school and nursery school – everything a pulpit rabbi would do.”

“I’m not there to make big changes,” he said, “but to provide a year of some stability, tranquility, and wholeness.”

Simon said one of his big goals is to make sure that those who need to move from “some form of mourning” can do so. When rabbis who have been with a congregation for several years leave, for whatever reason, it is inevitably traumatic for some congregants. “The congregation needs its own little grief process,” he said.

In fact, interim rabbis are becoming more common for that reason. Teaneck’s Beth Sholom, for example, hired an interim rabbi for a year before hiring Pitkowsky.

Simon said his congregation is well mixed demographically, dividing almost equally into families with nursery age to bar mitzvah age children; those with children from 13 to 21; and empty nesters and retirees.

He said he will be “teaching a lot,” offering “more ways to help people increase their literacy in some unusual ways.” For example, he said, he will teach a class called “Torah Girls” for girls between the ages of 12 and 17 and their mothers.

In this class, he will focus on four different sections of the Torah, identifying women “who are hidden sources of wisdom, or unappreciated and underrated role models, or women who have been seen in an unfair light.”

He is hopeful teenage girls will come with their mothers to study about women they may not have heard of. While it’s open to anyone, he said, “It’s geared to the teenagers in our congregation.”

The synagogue’s transition to his leadership has been smooth, he said, but “The big transition will take place next year” when a permanent rabbi is hired.

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