Search for Rabbi Right
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Search for Rabbi Right

This week, the board of the Fair Lawn Jewish Center was to vote on an interim rabbi. The congregation spent the past year interviewing potential candidates for a permanent position, but, say members of the rabbinic search committee, they have not yet found the right candidate.

"The committee decided that we will not just ‘settle,’ said Jeffrey Herrmann, chairman of the group. Herrmann laughed when asked what kind of rabbi the congregation is seeking. "You know that old joke," he said. "He should be 3′ years old with 38 years of experience."

The FLJC was served by Rabbi Simon Glustrom — now rabbi emeritus and living in Hackensack— for some 41 years. Rabbi Henry Glazer, who retired at the end of July, had been with the congregation for 15 years. The new rabbi will be expected to "stay forever," said Herrmann, who has lived in Fair Lawn since 1968 and has been a member of the congregation all those years.

According to Herrmann, the Conservative shul is going by the book — seeking a spiritual leader through the Rabbinical Assembly/United Synagogue Joint Commission on Rabbinical Placement. The synagogue, which belongs to the RA’s category "B," since it has just under 500 family units, is entitled to a rabbi with at least two years of congregational experience.

"A lot of [the search process] can be done online," he said. Congregations fill out a questionnaire indicating what they’re looking for and provide a profile of the synagogue. The questionnaire is then sent by the Joint Commission to all interested candidates.

Joe Freedland, also on the synagogue’s 16-member search committee, says the group is made up of individuals representing different constituencies within the congregation and that, so far, all decisions have been made by consensus.

Several months ago, the committee created eight groups, each consisting of eight to 10 shul members and embracing different interests. For example, one group included longtime synagogue members (‘5+ years), while one was made up of families with children in the Hebrew school. A congregant trained in running focus groups facilitated meetings where group members discussed what they want in a rabbi.

"At the top of the list is someone who sees the rabbinate as a calling and wants to hold a pulpit in order to inspire his flock," said Herrmann. "Next, members want someone charismatic. Third, they want a scholar."

"Everyone agrees that we want a mensch," said Freedland, "someone who knows your name. We want someone who can make the congregation feel good about itself."

Herrmann said the committee has interviewed women candidates as well as men, although, he added, they have yet to find strong candidates of either sex. He also pointed out that since the FLJC is more traditional than the average Conservative synagogue, it is unlikely that a majority will agree to a female rabbi. The FLJC has two services on Shabbat morning. The early morning service in the main sanctuary is egalitarian. From Musaf on — when members of the non-egalitarian minyan join the main congregation — the shul is not.

Herrmann speaks with approval of the Protestant requirement to hire an interim pastor following the departure of a longtime spiritual leader. The Fair Lawn congregation, rather than choose a candidate simply to fill the vacancy, has determined to do the same thing.

This practice, he said, gives people time to get over their feelings toward the last leader, whether positive or negative, clearing the way for a new rabbi to bring his own style to the congregation. "A rabbi has to understand the congregation and should not add any new programs until he does. He needs a certain political sense," said Herrmann.

So far, the committee has received about 30 r?sum?s, conducted about ‘5 telephone interviews, interviewed 15 candidates in person, and invited three to spend weekends auditioning at the synagogue. Two actually came. Their visits spurred a lot of excitement in the synagogue, said Herrmann, who pointed out that candidates should "do their homework before they come."

Those seeking the Fair Lawn pulpit should know something about the town and the congregation, he said. Also, "they should press the flesh, shaking hands, talking and listening to everybody. Working the room is an essential part of the job." Following each visit, the search committee sponsored open forums where synagogue members could voice their opinions on the applicants. Candidates will be invited to visit the shul throughout the coming year — and as long as is necessary to choose another rabbi.

"It’s a fascinating process," said Herrmann. "You meet a lot of interesting people. It’s also an important job. We want a rabbi who will really be first-rate."

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