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Rabbis of LA | Rabbi Barry Lutz: Interim Leadership Is His Style

Since 2019, Rabbi Lutz has been serving as the interim leader of synagogues in Los Angeles and Orange counties as needs have arisen.
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September 7, 2023
Rabbi Barry Lutz

Approaching an age when considering retirement — or slowing down — would be common, Rabbi Barry Lutz is looking in the opposite direction.  He is continuing in the midst of one of the more inventive journeys in the rabbinic world. Since 2019, Rabbi Lutz has been serving as the interim leader of synagogues in Los Angeles and Orange counties as needs have arisen.

In July, Rabbi Lutz became the interim leader of Congregation Kol Ami following the retirement of founding Rabbi Denise Eger, who organized the West Hollywood Reform synagogue known for its LGBTQ community.

Rabbi Lutz’s interim hirings tend to be brief. “I take it one year at a time,” he said. “Some rabbis do interim work all over the country,” but Lutz, the father of two sons and a daughter, prefers staying close to home. 

His son Rabbi Adam Lutz, an engineer who formerly was at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, has returned to the tech field. His daughter-in-law and Adam’s wife is Cantor Emma Lutz of Stephen Wise Temple.

A native of Denver, the musically-oriented Rabbi Lutz spent 34 years in the North Valley before turning to interim assignments. “There are advantages and minuses in this field,” he said. “On the positive side, it’s a wonderful opportunity to come into different communities and see who they are and what they are about. It’s a great opportunity to help communities manage transitions.”

Rabbi Eger was a star in her community, and Rabbi Lutz acknowledged her celebrity. “Imagine someone stepping in the week after she leaves,” he said almost as if he could not believe sitting in this second-story office.

Being an interim rabbi isn’t all bagels-and-cream cheese, though, since a year sails so fast. “It’s really hard to create the space that allows the congregation to get used to the idea,” Lutz said, “and for me to prepare the ground for a new settled rabbi to come in.” In the past four years, he said, “I have had the opportunity to be in four communities … The downside is you only are here for a short time.”

What he loved about his prior career, he said “was to create strong, lasting relationships, guide people through life events and to be with them through births, b’nai mitzvah, confirmation. But when you leave, those relationships go away. Dealing with the politics is another hard part.”

Wherever he worked, music has been a constant in Rabbi Lutz’ life. “Music has been integral to my life, Jewish music in particular,” he said. “Still is. It helps me grow, to connect.” At Kol Ami on Shabbat, Rabbi Lutz plays guitar during services, as he has at other synagogues on his resume. “Depends who I am with,” he says, “but certainly here. Lisa Edwards is a tremendous musical director and accompanist I get to play with.” Music, he said “is such an incredibly powerful tool for connecting with someone. Not on an intellectual basis. You can’t intellectualize music. There is a fulfillment factor, giving listeners a benefit they cannot create.”

He grew up as a song leader in the Reform movement. After enrolling at Washington University, St. Louis, Lutz joined a synagogue as its music director and song leader, a perfect way to launch his adult years. 

In 1984, after graduating from Hebrew Union College, Lutz launched his career as an educator.  He was ordained in 1999. What inspired him to join the rabbinate was that he “wanted to be part of people’s lives in a much fuller way … I had been a director of education. But when I would get children to 13, I’d hand them off. I said ‘I don’t want to hand them off. I want to be part of their lives.’ There was a point where the educator ended and this became the realm of the rabbi.” 

Did he ever think of becoming a professional musician? “I don’t know about that,” he said, “but I often wish I had become a cantor. I could have seen going to cantorial school if I had had the opportunity.” By then, with family and commitments, he says, “I was (too) deep into a career” to take the time to go to New York and enroll in HUC’s School of Sacred Music.

When the subject of retirement was mentioned, it was obvious he had been asked about it before and had an answer ready. “People I consider my community who reach out to me for all kinds of life cycle events and advice,” he said. “They and their children always will be in my life.”

When the subject of retirement was mentioned, it was obvious he had been asked about it before and had an answer ready. “People I consider my community who reach out to me for all kinds of life cycle events and advice,” he said. “They and their children always will be in my life.”

Regardless where he goes when he his year at Kol Ami is up, Lutz said he will continue to “do weddings and funerals. In that sense I don’t know if I ever will retire. Less active but not retired. I love to teach, and I plan to continue that.” If he ever does retire, he knows exactly what he would miss more than anything else — relationships.  “That is what brought me to this career in the first place,” he said. “From the time I went to my first youth group convention in the ninth grade.”

For 50 years, Rabbi Lutz learned that “the connection you can make through getting people to sing together, the sense of harmony, is fantastic for me.”

Fast Takes with Rabbi Barry Lutz

Jewish Journal: Do you have any significant unrealized goals?

Rabbi Lutz: My biggest unrealized goal: I always have wanted to go to the Shalom Hartman Institute. 

J.J.: Favorite place you have traveled other than Israel?

Rabbi Lutz: Italy. My daughter was married there a year ago.

J.J.: Best book you ever have read?

Rabbi Lutz: Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

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