New rabbi's task: Build community


The afternoon Rabbi Ronald Shulman chose to discuss his move to Baltimore, the temperature was 20 degrees and a crush of snow had closed the schools.

That same afternoon, the sun beamed down on his former home along California's southern coast and the thermometer there read 80 degrees.

Does the new rabbi notice any differences between his former synagogue in paradise and Baltimore's sprawling Chizuk Amuno Congregation?

"OK, OK. It's colder," he concedes. But he's not just referring to the weather.

As Shulman, 48, prepares for his formal installation today as rabbi at Stevenson's Chizuk Amuno, he is aware of the expectation that he bring more warmth to one of the largest, oldest and most formal Conservative congregations in the country. The reason he was hired, the synagogue leadership said, and the reason he decided to take the job, the rabbi said, is to prove that the nationally renowned congregation can become a model of intimacy.

"We have to come up with a more compelling narrative of what it means to be Jewish," Shulman said.

Chizuk Amuno, just north of the Baltimore Beltway, is home to 1,350 families, five schools and a 133-year-history. Its former leader, Rabbi Joel H. Zaiman, retired in 2003 after 25 years. He had built an international reputation as a spokesman for the Conservative movement and for the larger Jewish faith.

The rabbi emeritus said Friday that his replacement would be "an agent of change."

Because Zaiman focused on encouraging Jewish education and study rather than community participation, he said, "The difference primarily will be in the style of worship." When the congregation embarked on a search for a new rabbi, the members also embarked on a sober self-assessment. Membership had declined in recent years, the current population was aging and the synagogue did not seem to be attracting new families, said congregation President David Roffman, who was part of the rabbi search committee.

The synagogue's plight was not so different from other Conservative congregations around the country. The United Jewish Communities' 2000-2001 survey of American Jews found that Reform Judaism has overtaken Conservative as the most popular in this country.

The survey also reported a statistic that particularly alarmed Conservative leaders: 33 percent of American Jews said they were raised as Conservative, but only 27 percent identified themselves with the movement today. It meant that a significant number of Conservative Jews were finding their faith elsewhere.

In recent years, Conservative leaders have experimented with different approaches to stem the departures. One that developed an enthusiastic following maintains that synagogues turn inward and concentrate on creating more community connection within their congregations.

One of the main proponents of the theory was Shulman, then leading Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif. He mingled with synagogue members during service; he visited their homes; he dressed as a court jester for a Purim party. And membership more than tripled to about 600 families during his tenure.

"It would be hard to imagine a rabbi more beloved by his community," said Howard Blumberg, the current president of Ner Tamid.

Shulman's reputation traveled across the country to the Chizuk Amuno search committee.

"He was exactly the right man for this job at this time," said Roffman. The attraction was not immediately mutual. When leaders of the congregation first approached Shulman, he turned them down. He was happy in his 21st year at Ner Tamid.

With persistence, he was persuaded. The winning argument, he said, was that Chizuk Amuno offered him a bigger stage to try out the intimacy idea. "It was an opportunity to have an impact on a religious movement," he said.

Shulman was born in Chicago and raised in California. He graduated from Brandeis University before he was ordained in 1983 by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. While at Ner Tamid, he was also a lecturer in rabbinical studies at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

Though Shulman's formal installation is today, he has been leading the congregation for about six months. It has been long enough to decorate his office with family snapshots and a dreidel collection. It's also been long enough to begin bringing some of his promised changes.

He has moved the stage from which services are delivered down into the congregation. He reduced the role of the choir and pushed the congregation members to join in singing.

The choir change, in particular, perturbed a few longtime members. The congregation's choir, a rarity in synagogues, is a significant point of pride. Reducing its role remains a sore topic with some members.

For Shulman, the episode reinforced what he suspected. A large historic congregation can become set in its ways.

Still, he said, he is prepared for a long thaw. "If it doesn't happen in the first six months, I hope it happens in the next six months. If it doesn't happen in the first year, I hope it happens in the second year. If it doesn't happen in the first five years, I hope it happens in the next five years," he said. "I'm patient."

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