February 28, 2020

Search for a Leader

It’s one of the defining moments in the life of a synagogue — the search for a new head rabbi. Here in Pico-Robertson, the Orthodox community has been buzzing for months about who will replace Rabbi Steven Weil, the star rabbi of Beth Jacob Congregation who will be moving on to run the Orthodox Union.

Beth Jacob is the old lion of shuls. It’s known as the biggest Modern Orthodox synagogue west of the Mississippi. It has helped spawn the other two Modern Orthodox communities of the area, Young Israel of Century City and B’nai David-Judea Congregation. Those synagogues are so strongly associated with their spiritual leaders, Rabbi Elazar Muskin and Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, that it’s hard to imagine anyone else leading them.

Beth Jacob is different. It’s bigger than its rabbis. Over the years, it has had a series of big-name leaders, each with his own distinctive style, from Rabbi Simon Dolgin over 50 years ago to Rabbi Maurice Lamm, Rabbi Abner Weiss and now Rabbi Weil. Each has written a different chapter in the book of Beth Jacob.

Now, as a new chapter is about to be written, the excitement is building.

The search began last June. A search committee of about a dozen members was formed to make a recommendation of a candidate to the executive board. But right away there was a problem — the job description — because of the natural, human tendency to want it all. In the marketing business, we say that the essence of strategy is sacrifice. But in the shul business, who wants to sacrifice?

For example, who wants a rabbi who can deliver fabulous sermons but can’t do fundraising? Or a rabbi who is spiritual but not intellectual? Or one who gives great classes but won’t call members on their birthdays or counsel them in their marital woes? Shul members want it all, and who can blame them?

Eventually, the committee split right down the middle between those who wanted a rabbi who leans toward the spiritual and those who wanted one who leans toward the intellectual.

Rabbi Weil himself is an intellectual. He is also a strong leader with an MBA who has revitalized the synagogue and helped it grow and thrive. No one wanted to give that up. But how might this new chapter be different?

We got an inkling of this last Shabbat, when the first of three finalists came to town for an audition. The main sanctuary was bursting with human energy. It seemed like every seat was taken, even in the upper levels. They all came to hear Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz of Montreal’s Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem Synagogue.

Rabbi Steinmetz, youthful looking in his mid-40s, is a graduate of Yeshiva University, which has been actively helping Beth Jacob in the search. The search itself began with about 25 candidates from the United States, Canada and Israel, including a few from Los Angeles. Everyone on the search committee had to sign a confidentiality agreement for the obvious reason that it wouldn’t look good to a congregation that its rabbi was looking elsewhere.

The list was whittled down to three based on lengthy conference calls with the candidates, private reference calls and responses to a detailed questionnaire. Once the three finalists were announced, a member of the committee spent a Shabbat on each of the rabbis’ home turf before inviting them for the local audition.

The local audition is make or break. That’s because at the end of the process, all members of the synagogue will get to vote up or down on the candidate recommended by the executive board. If the candidate gets one vote above 50 percent, he wins.

Rabbi Steinmetz got the race off to a good start. His main sermon was woven around the classic, crowd-pleasing question: How did Jews make it this far? I thought he erred by answering the question too quickly (“We always went against the grain”), but he recovered nicely by delivering a series of inspirational nuggets, such as, “We should raise our children to be better than us.”

He was candid in the question-and-answer period that followed the Kiddush. On politics, he is a fervent Zionist, but he doesn’t want members to know whether he’s right or left, Republican or Democrat. He says politics distract from his goal of inspiring his congregants. His mission, he says, is to help create “better Jews.”

At a small gathering Saturday night at the Beverly Hills home of Bill and Anna Tenenblatt, which I attended as an observer, Rabbi Steinmetz gave a class on the Jewish ethical framework for the killing of civilians during wartime. The subject seemed too deep and complex for the allotted hour, but it gave him a chance to show his nondogmatic, “intellectual-struggler” side. On his Web site and blog, he shows yet another side, as “The Happiness Warrior”— someone who seems sensitive to people’s simple needs.

Rabbi Steinmetz was well-received, but it’s clear no one wants to get too excited until they see all three finalists, all of whom have impeccable credentials. Next up is Rabbi Kalman Topp from Young Israel of Woodmere on Long Island and then Rabbi Dovid Cohen from Young Israel of The West Side in Manhattan.

The day of the final vote hasn’t been set yet, but it should come in late February or early March.

One of the leaders of the search committee, Mark Rohatiner, who with board president Dr. Steve Tabak has been spearheading the search, seemed a little drained by the whole process when I spoke to him last Sunday. He knows how hard it is to reach consensus on any issue, let alone on such a momentous one.

“I feel like I’m pregnant,” he joked, “and I’m starting to feel the contractions.”

As it turns out, it will have taken about nine months to deliver a new head rabbi to Beth Jacob Congregation. At this point, all we know for sure is that it’s a boy.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine, Meals4Israel.com and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at {encode=”dsuissa@olam.org” title=”dsuissa@olam.org”}.