Detroit’s Jewish community has extra cause to celebrate this High Holiday season: the arrival of six new congregational rabbis.
Three are serving Conservative synagogues — Rabbi Yonatan Dahlen at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Rabbi Shalom Kantor at Congregation B’nai Moshe in West Bloomfield and Rabbi Ariana Silverman at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit.
Two are at Reform temples — Rabbi Megan Brudney at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township and Rabbi Brent Gutmann at Temple Kol Ami in West Bloomfield.
Rabbi Aura Ahuvia is the new spiritual leader of the Reform/Renewal Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy.
In addition, the Reform Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor recently welcomed Rabbi Josh Whinston (see sidebar).
Rabbis Ahuvia, Gutmann, Kantor and Silverman are serving as their congregations’ only rabbi. Silverman is the Downtown Synagogue’s first rabbi since the late Rabbi Noah Gamze retired in 2001. Dahlen joins Rabbi Aaron Starr at Shaarey Zedek, and Brudney will be the assistant to Temple Beth El’s senior rabbi, Mark Miller.
Brudney and Dahlen are fresh out of rabbinical school. While the others have congregational experience, most are fairly young. Ahuvia, who has adult children, is the most seasoned pro among them.
The turnover in pulpit positions leaves Detroit with few truly “senior” non-emeritus rabbis. Herbert Yoskowitz, 75, at Adat Shalom Synagogue and Harold Loss, 71, at Temple Israel are probably the area’s oldest full-time pulpit rabbis.
Some rabbis are retiring earlier, including Arnold Sleutelberg, who was only 57 when he became rabbi emeritus at Shir Shalom at the end of June. Others altered career paths, including Elliot Pachter, who moved from the pulpit at B’nai Moshe to a full-time administrative position at the Frankel Jewish Academy in West Bloomfield.
“I do not know of a trend in early retirements from the rabbinate, but it is not unusual for those in the rabbinate to shift careers, as I did, from pulpit to academia,” said Rabbi Daniel Nevins, who left Adat Shalom Synagogue in 2008 to become the dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
Kol Ami’s Gutmann traveled the farthest to come to Detroit. Although he grew up in Dayton, Ohio, he spent the past three years in New Zealand.
“My home congregation was Beth Shalom Progressive Congregation in Auckland,” he said. “We had approximately 220 households. Because I was the only non-Orthodox rabbi in the country, I occasionally visited four other congregations around the country, led services for them and consulted with their leadership.”
New Zealand has only about 7,000 Jews among its 4 million inhabitants, he said. Most have roots in South Africa, Europe, Israel or Canada.
He said he and his wife, Jill, saw working there as a wonderful opportunity for themselves and their daughters, but, after three years, they were ready to return to the United States.
Silverman, on the other hand, didn’t have to travel at all to take up her new position. She has been living in Detroit’s Woodbridge neighborhood since moving to the area six years ago with her husband, Justin Long, who teaches law at Wayne State University.
A graduate of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Silverman has been assistant rabbi at Temple Kol Ami, the rabbi of the Grosse Pointe Jewish Council and the rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Jackson. She will serve the Downtown Synagogue on what the congregation calls a “very robust part-time basis” while continuing to serve part-time in Jackson until next July, when she will become full time in Detroit.
Some of the new rabbis have had multifaceted careers. Ahuvia holds two master’s degrees, in Judaic studies and journalism, from the University of Michigan. Gutmann spent three years in banking and marketing before starting rabbinical school. Brudney has worked as a song leader and spiritual counselor. Kantor has been a chaplain and a campus Hillel rabbi.
Dozens of community members served on the search committees aiming to find the perfect fit for their congregations.
Temple Beth El’s search committee interviewed more than a dozen practicing rabbis and 30 HUC-JIR seniors before choosing Brudney, said Beth El President Jordon Wertheimer of Franklin. She “immediately stood out to us as a rabbinic star in the making. Her enthusiasm for life, Judaism and people of all backgrounds is tremendous.”
Several noted that the new rabbis’ first months have confirmed their confidence that they made the right choice.
Shir Tikvah’s search committee worked for 10 months before settling on Ahuvia. “In her first month as rabbi, Shir Tikvah members can already see how what she brings to Congregation Shir Tikvah resembles many of the great traits of Rabbi Arnie [Sleutelberg], while also presenting strengths that will lead the congregation into a new, meaningful and exciting Jewish future,” said Shir Tikvah President Rich Spitzer of Troy.
“During the interview process at Temple Kol Ami, Rabbi Gutmann kept impressing upon us the importance of congregational engagement and, in his first month on the job, his outreach, which included a congregational barbecue at his house, has already endeared him to the Kol Ami family,” said Co-President Paul Gross of Farmington Hills.
Rabbis Welcome Rabbis
The community’s more seasoned rabbis are happy to have such an infusion of new blood.
“We are thrilled to have so many new rabbis to the Metro Detroit area this year,” said Rabbi Marla Hornsten of Temple Israel, president of the Michigan Board of Rabbis. “They bring an energy and enthusiasm to the community, with new ideas, new stories, a fresh perspective.
“It’s invigorating, like meeting a new friend or having a new chevruta [study] partner who encourages you and challenges you in exciting ways.”
Hornsten said the influx is a reflection of a revitalized and reinvented city. “It is an exciting time to be a rabbi in Detroit,” she said.
Her Temple Israel colleague Harold Loss said the fact the area needs additional rabbinic support is a good sign. Each of the new rabbis brings unique skills and talents, he said, which will help make Detroit the finest Jewish community in the country. Loss hosted a dinner for the new rabbis
Dan Horwitz, rabbi of The Well, a non-congregational Jewish outreach effort, is one of the younger “senior” rabbis in town. He said the entire community will benefit from the new rabbis’ enthusiasm and new ideas. He noted that the new rabbis are incredibly lucky to be able to learn, as he has, from the community’s more seasoned clergy.
“The new rabbis coming to our community don’t yet realize how fortunate they are,” agreed Rabbi Steven Rubenstein of Congregation Beth Ahm in West Bloomfield. “The Metro Detroit Jewish community is a wonderful community, and their presence here is sure to strengthen us all.”
Rabbi Robert Gamer of Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park said, “Whenever there are new rabbis, I think there is a general excitement because they bring new ideas and new ways of doing things — not that the ways of previous rabbis were not effective, but it is a change of pace.”
By Barbara Lewis, Contributing Writer
Vivian Henoch contributed to the rabbi bios. Her full story can be seen at myjewishdetroit.org, where she is editor. John Hardwick of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit graciously contributed his photos of the rabbis on the JN cover.