'Moment' is here for rabbi, Fulton congregation at Temple Isaiah

Temple Isaiah has had just three rabbis since it was founded in 1973. Stephen Fuchs led the reform temple from 1973 to 1986, and Mark J. Panoff was its rabbi from 1986 through 2012. The third is Craig Axler, who moved to Howard County from Pennsylvania to take the job in July. He will be officially installed on Saturday, March 23 in a ceremony in the Fulton synagogue combining ritual, entertainment, education and food.

Axler, easygoing and talkative, said there's no set rule about how much time must pass between a rabbi's first day on the job and the day of installation. Pope Francis, he notes, was to be installed less than a week after his election.

The ceremony won't change Axler's responsibilities or his relationship to the congregation, he said, but it's an important ritual. "It's a moment," he said, sitting on a couch in his office. "All of life is stringing together these moments. It's a moment for me, personally, and a moment for the congregation."

Axler's installation will start with a Havdalah ceremony, the traditional ceremony marking the end of the Sabbath, which begins each Friday night at sundown and ends at sundown each Saturday. There will be educational sessions tied to Passover, which starts a few days later. "There's no standard system for what one should do," he said. "It's really about finding something that makes sense for the congregation."

Axler expects as many as 20 members from his previous congregation to attend, as well as out-of-town family members, who will stay through Passover.  

Axler, 40, grew up in Cheltenham, Pa. Though his family was involved in reform Jewish life, he said he did not imagine a future for himself as a rabbi. Instead, his interest was in music and music therapy. He graduated from SUNY New Paltz in 1994 with a degree in music therapy, but within a few years, he changed course.

"I felt like I had a calling," he said.

He attended Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City, graduating in 2003 and becoming associate rabbi at Beth Or, a reform congregation with approximately 1,100 families, in the Philadelphia suburb of Maple Glen. 

He enjoyed his work at Beth Or but said, "I always knew I would move somewhere else" where he could be the primary rabbi. He began looking for a new job just as Temple Isaiah began its search for a new rabbi. Both he and Temple Isaiah spent about a year finding each other.

One reason Axler accepted the Temple Isaiah job is because he liked the idea of living in Howard County. He and his wife Pam have three children: Lev, 11, a sixth-grader at Clarksville Middle School, Eliana, 8, a second-grader at Pointers Run Elementary School, and Noam, 5, who is in a pre-kindergarten program at Dayton Oaks Elementary School.

Temple Isaiah, with 400 families, is home to the largest Jewish congregation in Howard County. Nine years ago, the congregation moved from the Meeting House in Columbia to a sprawling new building on Scaggsville Road in Fulton. The move meant the temple could add a preschool and religious school, which are both thriving.

Denny Rapport, president of the congregation, said Axler was chosen over the many other applicants because of "his music and his humor and his ideas." Rapport said Axler will build on the foundation left by Panoff, who served for 26 years, and whose wife, Renee, led the preschool.  

"What we were looking for was somebody to continue that tradition of large, big visionary accomplishments, as well as be attuned to modern practices and needs and where the people are," Rapport said.

Axler said he does not intend to make sudden changes at Temple Isaiah. His ambitions, at least in the short term, are relatively modest.

"My immediate goal is to get to know the congregation," he said. He wants to deliver services that are meaningful to congregants, and are "really connected to the outside world." He wants to add opportunities for the temple's members to do good things in the community.

He's proud that Grassroots, Howard County's homeless shelter, will move its operations to Temple Isaiah during Christmas week. The project will require many volunteers for tasks such as providing transportation, preparing and serving food, and monitoring the facility during sleeping hours. Axler said that reliance on volunteers is half the reason to do the project, and with the other half being "that it's the right thing to do."

Rapport said Axler is off to a good start. Attendance is up at services, he said, and school enrollment has increased.

"He's got a way about him, a sense of humor or a calmness which make even small changes, which seem like huge things to some people, easy to take," he said. "People are really happy."

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