Weeks away from his retirement from Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Rabbi Brett Isserow has hardly stopped to reflect. As the workings of synagogue life — religious school, confirmations, services — continue on, so does he. In late June, he’ll spend the final week of his tenure leading a congregational trip to Israel. So there’s lots of preparation left, and little time to look back on his 16 years leading the Reform synagogue.
“It’s really been too busy,” he says. “Nothing takes into account that you’re retiring, so life keeps on going at the same rate as it always has.”
It’s that kind of humility that people say has characterized his tenure at Beth El Hebrew Congregation, which will honor him with a retirement celebration on Shabbat.
Isserow, 65, speaks often about not taking himself too seriously or “blowing the shofar” too loudly. His primary objective when he arrived in 2002, he says, was to make the congregation “a kinder, gentler place” and unify some of the synagogue’s split factions. In that, at least, he’ll admit to succeeding, with help from the synagogue’s staff and lay leaders.
“We talked a lot about transforming our synagogue from a factional synagogue where people join on the basis of the goods and services that they get, and making it a more transformational synagogue where people maintain their membership because of the community they’re part of,” says Julienne Bramesco, Beth El’s president. “We talked about that for a long time, but I think we’ve actually become that thing.”
Isserow isn’t leaving for good. He’ll stay on as rabbi emeritus for Rabbi David Spinrad, who’s coming from The Temple in Atlanta. It’s a familiar path for Isserow, who came to Beth El Hebrew Congregation after 11 years as associate rabbi there.
When he began searching for a head rabbi position in 2001, Isserow was looking for a change of pace. The Temple, he says, was a “who’s who of Atlanta royalty.”
“Here, on the other hand, Beth El has got civil servants, lots of military … real people,” he says. He’s taken steps to keep it that way. In 2015, the congregation instituted a free-will dues policy, meaning that families are shown the cost per family of running the synagogue and then asked to contribute what they want to. According to Bramesco, membership — which had been falling slightly — stabilized, and revenue didn’t decrease.
Isserow’s particularly proud of a culture shift he’s seen in the religious school. Students now spend a year learning trope before beginning to tackle their bar or bat mitzvah Torah portion. And the school has become a social and inviting environment — the “Jewish friends hang-out,” he calls it.
“I think the vast majority of our kids actually enjoy coming to our religious school,” Isserow says. “We’ve put a lot of emphasis on socializing the kids together and they like each other. My thought has always been that if you can create friendships in religious school, you can keep them around after confirmation.”
As the longtime rabbi prepares to step down, Bramesco has been reflecting on his personal touch and the counseling he gave her and her husband when their mothers died.
“He’s extremely empathetic,” she says. “When he talks to you, you know that he cares about you.”
Isserow took a circuitous route to the rabbinate. Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, his Jewish education stopped after his bar mitzvah. And out of college, he spent his early professional years as an accountant. But as he grew disillusioned with his profession, he grew closer to his faith, taking on various lay leadership roles at his synagogue.
In the mid-1980s, he found himself at a crossroads. Faced with the prospect of returning to university for an MBA, he decided instead to apply to rabbinical school.
“I thought to myself, ‘If you’re not happy now, getting additional degrees isn’t going to make you any happier. Why don’t you think about what you want to do that will really make you happy,’” he says. “At that point in time I was single, so I figured if anybody was going to starve, it would just be me.”
It was at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati that he met his wife, Jinny. Though the two have no plans to move after Isserow’s retirement, they’ll be doing plenty of travelling to see their daughter, Anna, in upstate New York, and their son, Jesse, in Jacksonville, Fla.
Isserow also plans to continue teaching at the synagogue and he recently joined the board of directors of the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia. He’ll also be taking classes at the Smithsonian and hopes to finally finish reading a book or two in his newfound free time.
Isserow says he isn’t sad at all about stepping from the pulpit. He says it was a decision he made in large part because of how well the synagogue is doing. Membership is steady at 570 families, the financial house is in order, and — most importantly — the environment is a pleasant one.
“I felt that I was at a good peak. Things are going well in the congregation and why would I want it to start going downhill because of my lack of energy or enthusiasm?” he says. “Why wait for the rut to set in. I’d rather go out at the top of the wave and allow Rabbi Spinrad to come in and ride it even better than I could.”
When he thinks back to his life in South Africa and what could have been a career as an accountant, Isserow says he’s almost relieved at how things have turned out.
“Even on those days when I wake up in the morning and I’m thinking, ‘Oh my God, what am I doing here?’ there’s a little voice in the back of my head that’s saying, ‘It’s better than being an