He works weekdays. She works weekends (and weekdays and many evenings, too). So, what’s a busy couple to do?
"We’re both extremely intense professionals," said Rabbi Elyse Frischman, religious leader of Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes when reached by phone at her Ridgewood home. Her husband, Rabbi Daniel Freelander, is vice president at the Union for Reform Judaism in New York. Earlier in their careers, the couple had taken a two-month sabbatical to work with the Jewish community in Australia. They knew the next time around that wouldn’t be enough of a break, she said, and broached the subject with her congregation four years ago as she was negotiating her current contract.
Still, pulling it off required careful planning before her departure in mid-October. That meant that the congregation was involved in the process of selecting an interim rabbi. "It was important for them to make the decision and made it easier for [Rabbi Joel Soffin] to come into this setting."
For his part, Soffin said the year is going "wonderfully well," thanks also to the support of the rest of the professional staff. It helped, too, that Soffin’s previous experience and style were a good fit for Barnert. Recently retired after ‘7 years at a similarly sized Reform synagogue in Morris County, Soffin spent weeks observing Frischman in her various professional roles to ensure a smooth transition.
Before they could take off, Frischman and Freelander also had to consider what would work for their daughter, Devra, the youngest of the couple’s three children and the only one still living at home. During the next semester, Devra, a junior at Ridgewood High School, will be studying at Kibbutz Tzuba, while her parents teach and study in Jerusalem for a couple of months. The Reform movement program for high school youth is located just west of the city.
The timing of the sabbatical couldn’t have been better, with Frischman having just concluded an arduous process of editing a new Reform prayerbook, "Mishkan T’filah," due out this spring.
As the date for her sabbatical approached, Frischman said she kept thinking, "I’ll be able to read again. Rabbis always do a lot of reading, but this year, I’m reading so many different types of books, more than I ever have."
Frischman and Freelander are also spending the year doing, she said, "what we’re never able to do, given our conflicting schedules, and that is travel." They have already made two brief trips abroad. "We always see the world through Jewish eyes, and we’ve attempted to connect with Jewish family and the larger Jewish community wherever we’ve been. We wanted to see how Jews live in different parts of the world."
What has struck them, said Frischman, "is the sense of rootedness among European Jews that we lack in America. Ours is an immigrant story, and we’ve discovered our roots [as Jews] in Israel. Jews in Europe have a stronger sense of being there, going back centuries," despite the history of anti-Semitism.
For example, in Sienna, Italy, she said, they came across a synagogue in an obscure location and felt the stubborn pride among the small community of Jews who had survived the Holocaust. In Rome, a young Jewish woman who served as their guide described feeling very much at home as a minority. They were privileged in Rome to attend a ceremony with the pope, arranged by their friend and colleague, Anti-Defamation League director of education Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor. Seated in a special section of Saint Peter’s Square for the pontiff’s weekly address, they witnessed a historic reconciliation. A Holocaust survivor Frischman and Freelander recognized as the mother of a rabbinic colleague was being honored as a work of her art was made part of the Vatican’s art collection. "Just to watch the way they [she and the pope] looked and spoke with one another," said Frischman, "colored everything we experienced on that trip."
They next went to Holland where Freelander has family a cousin and her husband, a rabbi and curator of the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam. "We saw the city through his incredible work," said Frischman, adding that Holland is "one of the most liberal and tolerant nations on our planet." During Shabbat in London, they connected with both the classical Progressive community, as the Reform movement there is known, and an emerging younger strain of Progressive Jewry.
So far, the sabbatical has been "refreshing, eye-opening, inspirational," said Frischman, who will return to her congregation in time for Passover. Colleagues have warned that re-entry can be a challenge, with the intensity of the pulpit all the more daunting following a break. "You want to respond to the needs [of the congregation], but still keep yourself healthy and in balance," she said. "The leadership and I will work on [this] together, because we want the relationship to last a long time."