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New rabbi at Bet Aviv led spiritual care efforts in NYC following 9/11

Rabbi Seth Bernstein takes over Columbia congregation

By Karen Nitkin, knitkin@verizon.net

6:54 PM EDT, September 27, 2011

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Rabbi Seth Bernstein provided solace and leadership in New York City following the Sept. 11 attacks. He has led congregations in New York and Massachusetts. He has provided comfort to people in hospices and hospitals.

And now, Bernstein is rabbi at Bet Aviv, a Reform Jewish congregation of about 220 based at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center in Columbia, also known as the Meeting House.

Bernstein, 62, has been leading the Bet Aviv congregation for "less than 100 days," but he figures he's already met about about two-thirds of the congregation, hosted 11 coffees and presided over a funeral.

The coming High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah started Wednesday, Sept. 28, at sundown and Yom Kippur on Oct. 7 at sundown — will serve as an introduction to members he hasn't yet met, and give him the chance to forge deeper bonds with the others.

Bernstein, who started the job in Columbia on July 1, was chosen from about 15 candidates, said Marty Stein, co-president of the congregation and chair of the selection committee. He's just the second rabbi in the 15-year history of Bet Aviv, which was started specifically for empty-nesters.

"We were looking for someone who really had a desire to be part of our community," Stein said. "Someone who demonstrated a significant amount of compassion, and someone who we felt could focus us more on, not only the religious aspects of Judaism, but something near and dear to us, which is adult education."

Bernstein's background in chaplaincy, which included service in New York following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, was also appealing, Stein said.

"When you think about the events of 9/11 and his role in the healing process, you get a sense of who this person really is and what kind of attributes he brings to the table," he said.

'Devastating experience'

Bernstein served 25 years as rabbi at Temple Sinai in Worcester, Mass., and was there when planes that flew out of Logan Airport in Boston were turned into terrorist weapons. A member of the Critical Response Team of the American Red Cross, Bernstein chose to stay with his congregation in the days immediately following the attacks, but went to New York City the last two weeks of December to provide comfort to the reeling community.

"It was a devastating experience," he said. He worked 20-hour days, shuttling between hospitals, Ground Zero and other sites, overseeing some 450 chaplains as the lead administrative spiritual care officer for the American Red Cross.

Bernstein grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from Indiana University, marrying his wife, Marsha, before their senior year, he said. After he was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1977, he moved to New York, working nine years at Congregation Rodeph Shalom as assistant rabbi and associate rabbi. He became rabbi at Temple Sinai in Worcester in 1986 and held the job until accepting his new post at Bet Aviv and moving to Columbia.

Throughout his career, Bernstein has studied and served as a chaplain, earning a Doctor of Ministry in chaplaincy and family systems theory at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts and serving as chaplain at the University of Massachusetts Memorial Medical Center and Jewish Home Hospice in Worcester.

At Bet Aviv, he is following Rabbi Marc Lee Raphael, who saw the congregation grow from about 35 families to the current 220 or so. Raphael, a professor, is chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at theCollege ofWilliam and Mary.

In searching his replacement, the congregation wanted someone who would live in Howard County and "be available for all the lifecycle events," Stein said. They found that in Bernstein, a man who smiles easily, listens attentively and speaks in thoughtful, measured tones.

Bernstein said he accepted the Bet Aviv job partly because it is part-time, and partly to be closer to a child and grandchildren, who live in Kensington, in Montgomery County. He also likes that the congregation is based at the Meeting House, which provides "great opportunities for sharing" with people of other faiths, he said.

"We're very excited to be here," he said.