Hailed Widely as ‘a Mensch,’ Marc Israel Joins as Our New Rabbi
By Jay P. Goldman, Tikvat Israel Bulletin Editor
Marc Israel has harbored the desire to one day become a senior congregational rabbi and to reconnect alongside his family as residents of the Washington, D.C., area.
In one swoop, he’s now accomplished both ambitions, having been named the new spiritual leader at Tikvat Israel Congregation. Rabbi Israel signed a three-year contract on March 24 and plans to start his post during the first week of June.
He was the choice of a 10-member selection committee that launched its work last fall to fill a pending vacancy when Rabbi Benjamin Shull opted not to extend his four-year tenure. The synagogue’s board of directors gained congregational approval for Rabbi Israel’s selection at a well-attended meeting in late February.
Since 2013, Rabbi Israel, who turns 49 in mid-May, has served as the associate rabbi at the 700-family Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, Pa., a suburb 30 minutes west of Center City Philadelphia. Previously, he worked for eight years as rabbi educator at Ohr Kodesh Congregation along East-West Highway in Chevy Chase, Md., where he was responsible for directing the religious school. Both synagogues are affiliated with the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
A day after signing his contract in the presence of synagogue co-presidents Warren Berger and Jim Perlmutter, the rabbi said in a Facebook post: “Over the past few months, I have been impressed with the warmth, creativity and deep commitment to learning and Jewish observance of the Tikvat Israel community. I look forward to building relationships with each member and working together to expand the community’s reach. It is also exciting for our family to replant our roots in the Greater Washington area.”
Interviews with more than a dozen congregants and staff members at his synagogues in Wynnewood and Chevy Chase yielded a picture of someone who has a masterful ability at forming and sustaining strong personal and professional relationships with those of all ages with a particular bent toward captivating school-agers.
Illustrating that talent, Rabbi Neil Cooper, the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Hillel, referenced the annual retreats Rabbi Israel organized for 5th and 6th graders “when he would stand before a group of adolescents, generally unable to sit, let alone listen, and having them mesmerized with a story or lesson.”
His congregants also painted a picture of a spiritual leader with the uncanny skill to adapt his persona to the needs of the moment – someone comfortable dressing up as “Torah Man,” singing at the top of his lungs with a red and sweaty face on the bima during Simchat Torah and equally adept at quiet one-on-one pastoral support and consolation in times of family loss.
Several congregants in both Wynnewood and Chevy Chase pointed to his mensch-like personal characteristics. Rabbi Lyle Fishman of Ohr Kodesh recalled such a moment in the aftermath of his mother-in-law’s passing. “Marc could have called to express condolences, but instead drove down from Philadelphia and led a shiva minyan one evening,” he says.
Randy Goldberg, president of the Wynnewood shul, related a similar experience. “I will never forget Rabbi Israel sitting in my husband’s hospital room a couple of years ago when he was recovering from a serious illness — chatting away, keeping us company, as though nothing could be more important to us. It meant so much to us.”
During his tenure at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, Rabbi Israel gained regular experience on the pulpit, something he sought for personal growth as he aspired for an eventual move into a senior rabbinate role. When he had opportunities to deliver Shabbat morning sermons, he apparently left an enduring mark on his congregants through his creative pop culture references and occasional asides expressing an unabashed enthusiasm for all things affiliated with his beloved alma mater, University of Michigan.
His display of creative risks were particularly memorable. Says Joshua Kohn, vice president at the Wynnewood synagogue: “I was very surprised to see massive cutouts of superheroes make their way into a sermon, but he made it work.”
A native of Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Rabbi Israel trained in the Reform movement before formally shifting to the Conservative movement in 2007.
Rabbi Israel’s wife Abbey Frank, whom he met when both were undergraduates at University of Michigan, works for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. They are parents of three teenagers.
Rabbi Israel’s colleagues and friends in Philadelphia expressed uniform sadness at the news of his impending return to Maryland. Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El’s veteran hazzan, Eugene Rosner, put it this way: “His big leave [behind] with our congregation was his menschlichkeit. He was absolutely great with his connections with our congregants. A special gift for sure.”