Q&A With Rabbi Israel About TI’s Appeal, Pulpit Politics and Moving to a Smaller Congregation
Bulletin editor Jay P. Goldman conducted this interview with Rabbi Marc Israel shortly after his contract signing to join Tikvat Israel. Below, he discusses an array of subjects, including what he found most appealing about our congregation, moving from a substantially larger synagogue, politics as a pulpit topic and his feelings about Bryce Harper. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What attracted you to apply for TI’s rabbi position?
Rabbi Israel: I was familiar with Tikvat Israel during the years I lived in Washington and Chevy Chase, and I always was impressed with the qualities of the members I met, especially their menschlekeit. I also knew Cantor Rochelle Helzner and have admired her voice and the sense of spirituality she brings to the bimah.
When you reviewed the search committee’s information about our congregation, what quality or claim prompted you to say, “I want to check out this place over a Shabbat weekend”?
Rabbi Israel: There wasn’t one particular thing – it was more of the way members of the committee described the overall gestalt of the community – Jewishly well-educated, committed to the community and striving for more.
During your full “tryout” weekend, did anything surprise you?
Rabbi Israel: I was impressed with the strength of the Shabbat community. Obviously, a tryout weekend brings out a larger crowd, but it was clear in my conversations that this is a community that enjoys being with one another.
What in your skill set or experiences makes you an especially comfortable fit for the current TI stage?
Rabbi Israel: My ability to develop strong relationships and reach out to new families is especially important right now. The community already has a strong base. To maintain that strength, we will need to get the word out to the broader Jewish community of what makes Tikvat Israel unique. I especially look forward to getting to know the families of the ECC and the religious school.
At what point did you decide you wanted to be a lead congregational rabbi and were ready to do so?
Rabbi Israel: From early in my rabbinic career, I recognized that being “in between” the Reform and Conservative movements would make congregational work difficult so I focused on informal and formal education. When I began work at Ohr Kodesh, I found I loved the rhythm and dynamic of being in a synagogue. After joining the Rabbinical Assembly in 2007, I was no longer in between but firmly planted in the Conservative movement. From that point forward, I have worked toward becoming a senior rabbi. After 12 years of preparation, we will find out soon if I’m ready!
Based on what you’ve seen and learned about TI, how will you spend your first year?
Rabbi Israel: My first priority will be to develop relationships with each family in the Tikvat Israel community and to learn what is important and what they need from their synagogue. We will have some parlor meetings for specific cohorts within the congregation, but I also plan to meet with every family individually within the first year. I also look forward to working with Cantor Helzner, the synagogue staff, board and the rabbinic transition team to determine other priorities and to set goals.
In terms of personal goals, I look forward to attending more Washington Nationals games and working to create the best balance for my family, given our new living configuration.
What is your approach to collaboration with congregants and staff?
Rabbi Israel: I strongly believe in collaborating with both congregants and staff. I also recognize that there is a danger of “paralysis by committee” that plagues many synagogues. As the rabbi, I see my role as taking in all the information, noticing the patterns of concern and developing a framework to attend to those needs in a unified manner. I especially enjoy helping to make connections across various groups and individuals who share common concerns or who are able to help someone out but may not be aware of the other.
You’ve worked at two comparatively large synagogues during the past 14 years, currently at one almost three times the size of Tikvat Israel with considerably greater human and financial resources. Why leave such a well-supported and substantial operation and face a rather significant adjustment?
Rabbi Israel: When I considered what I wanted in the next stage of my career, I quickly decided I was not interested in serving as the rabbi of “too large” a synagogue. The right size for me is a synagogue where I know the names and faces of each member – and not only their names, but their interests and their needs. Once a congregation is above 400 families, I believe that becomes more difficult. Larger congregations may have greater financial resources, but I find smaller congregations tend to have greater human resources. I think this is especially true for Tikvat Israel.
You’re coming from a suburban synagogue that probably averages 2-4 b’nai mitzvah each month to a congregation that will host maybe 2 or 3 over the next 15 months. With teaching such a central part of your professional background, how will that interest play out in a synagogue with such a limited number of school-age members?
Rabbi Israel: As a teacher, I always measure my impact by its depth and not by its width. Whether it’s with 5 or 50 people, my goal is to help people find greater relevancy in whatever aspect of our tradition that I’m teaching. I also believe Jewish education is a lifetime endeavor. Regardless of how much we know, there is an infinitely greater amount for us to learn.
Finally, I plan to work with the synagogue leadership to help attract and grow our cadre of young families, with the hope that this question will be less relevant in five years than it is today!
This is such a politically obsessed time in America and within American Jewry. Are you inclined to share your political views and your particular ideas about support of Israel from the pulpit?
Rabbi Israel: At all times, rabbis must walk a careful line between addressing moral issues of the day and the tendency to become political commentators. The words of Finley Peter Dunne, the late 19th century Chicago Evening Sun columnist, come to mind when he described the role of the press as “to provide comfort for the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”
There are times when a rabbi needs to speak out on an issue of moral urgency, but there are also many times when people, especially in Washington, need a break from politics. I work to maintain that balance in my sermons. But I also believe vigorous and respectful discussion on topical issues is important and there are appropriate forums off the bimah to have such conversations. Sometimes I might serve as moderator and sometimes I might present a particular viewpoint. But when I do share a particular perspective, I always seek to create space for differing points of view. Finally, when you come to my Shabbat dinner table, you may hear some of my personal views!
When Bryce Harper announced he was moving from Washington to Philadelphia during the time you were negotiating your new contract, did you say to your family, “Whoa – maybe we ought to be staying in Philly”?
Rabbi Israel: Not for a moment! There was some initial hope that Tikvat Israel might match the Phillies’ contract offer to Harper – or even a month of his salary over the next three years– but alas, my swing of the bat was never that strong. If anything, Harper coming to Philly was further incentive for us to leave so we won’t have to endure the Phillies fans’ taunts on a daily basis!