B’nai Israel Synagogue will officially welcome its newly ordained Rabbi Mitch Parker with a tribute dinner at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26, at the synagogue, 5085 Walnut Lake Road, West Bloomfield.
For the 67-year-old psychologist, who has been a member of the shul since moving to Detroit in 2000, earning a rabbinical degree is the culmination of a life dedicated to Jewish education for children, those with special needs and adults.
Parker was ordained online through New York’s Mesifta of Adath Wolkowisk rabbinical academy. Unlike the traditional rabbinical seminaries, the program is designed for mature adults in mid-career or second careers who have already demonstrated advanced experience in Jewish education. The length and breadth of the course of study depends on the student’s knowledge and experience.
To complete his rabbinic studies, Parker did coursework in Hebrew, rabbinics, Tanach and Jewish philosophy, and he also studied weekly with Rabbi Shneur Silberberg at the Bais Chabad Torah Center in West Bloomfield.
BI rents space within Temple Kol Ami, which also this summer welcomed the arrival of Rabbi Brent Gutmann.
“B’nai Israel’s presence in our building only makes us stronger and, as a newcomer, I look forward to much collaboration with Rabbi Parker and his congregants,” Gutmann said.
Parker is a native Canadian with a decades-long career specializing in working with children with learning issues in hospital, school and private office settings. Over 20 years ago, he was the founding director of Camp Ramah’s Tikvah program, a full sleep-away Jewish camping experience for children and young adults with learning disabilities. In 2000, he moved to Detroit with his wife, Cheryl, and their two children to become special needs director at Hillel Day School in Farmington Hills.
In 2008, he became principal and clinical director of Zareinu Educational Center, a Jewish day school in Toronto for children with developmental and physical disabilities.
“In that job, I truly had the best of both worlds and was doing what I had set out to do way back when I was in university — I was saving the world one child at a time through Jewish education,” Parker said. “But I was spending much of my week in Toronto, and I missed my wife back in Detroit.”
BI president Frank Elias described Parker’s depth of Jewish knowledge as “encyclopedic.”
“Earning his rabbinical degree was a natural next step for Mitch,” Elias said. “We are delighted and very fortunate to have him as our rabbi. “
Parker’s easy-going manner and personal style shine through as he often tells stories based on midrash and guides text-based discussions in lieu of traditional Shabbat morning sermons.
He especially likes the psychological dynamics that run through the characters of Genesis.
“Because we study them at various ages in their life, Jacob and Joseph are the most complex biblical characters to me,” Parker said. “Like we do in our contemporary lives, they have numerous relationships and experiences, and deal with crises. There is much to learn from them.”
Parker will split his “retirement” between his private practice as a child psychologist and serving his congregation, just as he has since August. To him, psychology and the rabbinate are a natural blend. In any setting, even though he carries the titles of doctor and rabbi, he still prefers to be on a first-name basis with students, patients and congregants.
“As a psychologist, I only throw around the title of doctor when it is urgent to get a hold of someone over the phone,” Parker said. “People still call me Mitch, and that is just fine.”
In today’s contemporary world where American Jews are pulled in many different directions, attracting an active base of synagogue members is challenging, he said. According to Parker, congregational success relies not on purely looking toward growth, but also on keeping current membership happy.
“There needs to be personal connections with one another, and that makes congregants feel both spiritually and socially satisfied,” Parker said. “The happier and content congregants feel about their synagogue, the more likely they will say good things about the place and thus bring in others to be part of the community.”
Stacy Gittleman Contributing Writer
The cost of the Feb. 26 tribute dinner is $118 per person. The synagogue is also accepting ad journal entries. Proceeds will benefit programs at the synagogue. For more information, call (248) 432-2729.