After 20 years as rabbi of independent Bethesda Jewish Congregation, Rabbi Elhanan “Sunny” Schnitzer will retire next summer.
Schnitzer, 68, made the announcement in the congregation’s October newsletter and in a YouTube video, where he said that “the last 18 months of attempting to hold together a community in the midst of a pandemic” has taken a personal toll.
He said the congregation needs new leadership and new ideas.
“After a career of over 30 years of serving the Jewish community, it is time for a break. It is time to pursue new endeavors that will nourish our spirits in new ways,” he said in the video.
Schnitzer said he felt that the community could benefit from a new, young rabbi or cantor to facilitate the growth and spiritual health of the community.
“The things I brought to the Jewish community may not be what is needed in the future,” he said in an interview.
At the time the pandemic began, Schnitzer wanted to begin exploring what he calls “public space Judaism” to engage young American Jews who may not attend synagogue or otherwise participate in the Jewish community.
He said he hopes his successor will address this concern. “We have to go out and meet people where they are,” he said.
The congregation has formed a 10-member rabbinic search team.
Schnitzer said that when he becomes rabbi emeritus, he will step back to let his successor grow into the job and find their way without the looming shadow of the previous rabbi.
“A smart rabbi disappears for a substantial period of time.” Schnitzer said. “When they need me, I’ll be available.”
As Schnitzer looks to step down from the pulpit, he thinks of another stage from his early adulthood. He studied theater at University of Hartford and went on to work as an off-Broadway actor and musician in the 1970s.
Leaving the theater, he was co-owner of his family’s tire and car service company, in Baltimore.
Schnitzer was ordained as a cantor by the Academy for Jewish Religion in 1996 and became cantor for Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria.
In 2001, he was hired by Bethesda Jewish Congregation. He led his first service the day after the 9/11 attacks. He held the title of cantor until he was ordained in 2010 as a rabbi by the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. “I guess you could call [being a rabbi] my fourth career,” he said.
“I started out as an actor and a musician and I found it difficult to make a living,” he said. “Now that I don’t have to worry about making a living, I may want to continue to be involved in those passions. Stay tuned.”
Schnitzer said he will continue as president of the Cuba-America Jewish Mission, which works to revitalize Jewish life in Cuba, and plans to lead missions to the island soon. Schnitzer has worked with the organization to provide a kosher butcher, and build a Jewish senior center and a preschool.
Bethesda Jewish Congregation shares a building with Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church. “We are spiritual siblings sharing a sacred space,” he said. It 2019, the Maqaam-e-Ibrahim Islamic Center began holding afternoon prayers in the building on Fridays.
“We now have three Abrahamic faiths all meeting under one roof here in Bethesda.” WJW