Rabbi Steven Rein hasn’t started packing yet. But by July 1, he’ll have left Park Avenue Synagogue in New York and joined Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria as the Conservative synagogue’s new rabbi.
“After Shavuot [in June] we’ll start to wind down,” says Rein (pronounced “reen”), who has been assistant rabbi at Park Avenue since graduating from Jewish Theological Seminary in 2009.
The 32-year old rabbi succeeds longtime Agudas Achim Rabbi Jack Moline, who last September announced he was stepping down to become executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Moline began his new job in January.
Although Rein is a New Jersey native, the move to Northern Virginia will be a homecoming of sorts. His wife, Jodi Hirsch Rein, grew up in Reston. The couple will bring their sons Ari, 4, and Ilan, 2, to their new community.
In a telephone interview, he describes the “three factors” that converted him
at New York University from pre-med to pre-rabbi.
“I grew up in a committed Jewish household,” he says. His parents kept a kosher home, and he participated in youth activities of the Conservative movement, including the USY youth group and Camp Ramah.
“But when I arrived at NYU, there was no organized Conservative community.” So he and his roommate founded an NYU chapter of Koach, the movement’s now-defunct college outreach program.
After becoming a leader of the Conservative movement on campus, it took just one more thing to point him toward the seminary. That was his college girlfriend.
“She was taking a joint program at Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University,” he says. “At night we’d meet in the library. I’d be studying chemistry and she’d be studying Gemara [Talmud].”
The experience led to what Rein calls an intellectual awakening.
“By my junior year, I realized that instead of being a doctor of the body, being a doctor of the soul was what I wanted to spend my life doing.”
He married that girlfriend. When the family moves to the Washington area, Jodi Hirsch Rein will become director of the lower school at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax.
In addition to serving his congregation, Rein is a reserve chaplain in the United States Air Force. He has served at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington and Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Va. In July, he will transfer his attachment to Andrews Air Force Base in Prince Georges County, he says.
Moline had led Agudas Achim since 1987. His imminent departure compelled the congregation to decide what kind of person they wanted in their new rabbi.
Numerous discussions, meetings and surveys produced two word clouds that distilled the congregants’ priorities.
Most desired among a future rabbi’s personal attributes: “welcoming,” with “humor,” “warm,” “empathetic,” and “people” among the other most-desired qualities.
Top among professional qualities: “Torah,” “Jewish,” “knowledge” and “counselor.”
When Rein visited Agudas Achim in January, he didn’t see congregants following him around with copies of the word clouds to check his compatibility. “But it proved to be very useful in the interview process,” he says.
He thinks it played to his strength, which is “creating and nurturing meaningful
“One of the things we were looking for was somebody who is truly engaging,” says Joel Goldhammer, the congregation’s president. “We have high hopes that it will be an excellent relationship.”
Agudas Achim began its rabbi search with 22 resumes, Goldhammer says. They narrowed the field through phone conversations and Skype chats.
Rein “had done a tremendous amount of preparation” and impressed the search committee during one Skype chat when they told him: “Teach us something. Give us a d’var Torah,” Goldhammer recalls.
After Rein complied, the committee said, “Now take it to the level of a bar mitzvah group — give them the same message.” After that, he showed the committee how he’d teach the same lesson to preschoolers and kindergartners.
“Watching him translate that message to different age groups was impressive,” Goldhammer says.
Rein says Agudas Achim was the only synagogue he interviewed with that took him through that particular exercise. But what they asked was a basic part of every rabbi’s tool kit.
At Park Avenue Synagogue, “I do that every week. The reality is, many sermons in adult contexts, you can distill it down to its basic nuggets and teach it to many ages,” he says.
After the Skype phase, Rein was the first — and, as it turned out, only — candidate the synagogue decided to invite to meet the congregation and show what he could do. In January over an extended weekend, he led services, gave a sermon, taught a class and met the past presidents.
When he finished, a poll of the congregation found that 97 percent of 230
respondents gave Rein “good” or “great” marks.
“At that point we said we should look seriously at that candidate,” Goldhammer says. “He had a lot of opportunities, so we acted quickly.”
The congregation made an offer to Rein at the end of February and he accepted the same day.
There will be certain New York-to-Washington adjustments to be made. Already there’s been some concern in Rein’s circles about the suitability of bagels here. But viewing the culture here through an outsider’s eyes can lead to startling first impressions.
During a reception at the beginning of his January visit, he started chatting with a girl, who might have felt out of place in a room full of adults.
“What’s it like being a third-grader?” Rein asked her.
The girl replied without hesitation. “I can’t tell you, it’s confidential,” she said, leaving the rabbi startled at how Washington’s security consciousness had affected its young.
“Well, welcome to Washington!” he says now of that first impression. “It turns out, she’s a student at Gesher and they were putting on a Purim shpiel and they weren’t supposed to talk about it.”