Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg may be about to end a long run of instability. The Conservative congregation has hired husband-and-wife rabbis to begin work in July.
Rabbi Annie Lewis and Rabbi Yosef Goldman of Philadelphia accepted the 281-member-family synagogue’s job offer. Rabbinic spouse teams are not common in Washington and Wendy Fischman, co-chair of the congregation’s rabbi search team, considered the dual hire “outside the box.”
“We are fans of innovation,” she said. “And so we thought if any shul could thrive in this unique model, Shaare Torah is the congregation that could make it work.”
The synagogue has been searching for balance for two years. It has dealt with the sudden departure of its founding rabbi in 2019, disappointments and delays in its search for a permanent replacement, all the while coping with a pandemic that led an interim rabbi to resign and the congregation to find temporary leadership in a retired rabbi who is also a member.
“I couldn’t be more excited,” Fischman said. “I think that they will just infuse so much love and warmth, and spirituality and musicality into our congregation.”
Lewis, 37, and Goldman, 42, are noted for their musical affinity. Goldman is the co-director of Hadar’s Rising Song Institute. Lewis is associate rabbi of Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel. They were ordained at The Jewish Theological Seminary, which is where they met. They have a 6-year-old daughter, Zohar Lieba, and a 2-year-old son, Shir Emet.
Lewis said they were looking to lead a congregation together. She visited Shaare Torah in 2012, when she was paired with the congregation’s founding rabbi, Jacob Blumenthal, in a mentorship program run by The Wexner Foundation.
“So when Yosef and I were interested in leading a congregation together, we were exploring what congregations were looking [for a rabbi] and we were drawn immediately to Shaare Torah because of that experience that I had,” Lewis said.
Once at Shaare Torah, the couple will lead services together, or alternate. They’ll have the flexibility to run multiple events simultaneously. They’re contracted to each work three-quarters time, for an equivalent of 1.5 full-time rabbis, according to the search committee’s recommendation document.
And then there’s the music.
“There’s something really special about the harmony and the blend of voices that we have, because of our personal relationship and the depth of our relationship,” Goldman said. “That same synergy of something greater than the sum of its parts is true in other aspects of our communal and spiritual leadership.”
Fischman said Goldman and Lewis are “the embodiment of all of the attributes and skill sets” the congregation was looking for in a rabbi.
“They are warm and kind, and are relationship-based community builders,” synagogue president David Freiman wrote to the congregation in February before it voted on whether to hire Lewis and Goldman. “They bring a professional and spiritual musicality that encourages participation.”
Jacob Blumenthal had that spiritual musicality, too. He had been Shaare Torah’s rabbi since its founding in 1995. But in April 2019, he accepted the post of chief executive of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. Blumenthal started work four months later without a successor in place at Shaare Torah.
News of Blumenthal’s departure was a “shock” and took the congregation by surprise, according to Rabbi Mark Raphael, a congregant who last year took up rabbinic duties in a position the congregation calls “rabbinical consultant.”
“The community was happy for him to become the head of the Conservative movement,” Raphael said. “But the loss of your founding rabbi, the person that built everything up, that’s irreplaceable.”
In June 2019, Shaare Torah hired Rabbi Steve Glazer, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Emeth in Herndon, as interim rabbi. But when the pandemic began in March 2020, Glazer announced he was stepping away from the position for health reasons.
Meanwhile, the congregation was conducting a search for a new rabbi, completing a time- and labor-intensive process only to have their choice withdraw from consideration.
That set back the congregation’s search a year. And the congregation turned to Raphael to lead services. Raphael was rabbi of Kehilat Shalom for 16 years until retiring in 2012 and subsequently became a congregant of Shaare Torah. “Mostly my responsibilities have been pastoral and ritual,” he said.
Raphael said serving as rabbi during the pandemic has been “stimulating and interesting and hard, all at the same time.”
Between the two sets of searches, Fischman said she and her committee interviewed 32 candidates.
Raphael will continue to help lead services until Lewis and Goldman take charge this summer.
“It’s been a hard time with Rabbi Jacob [Blumenthal] stepping away, with the pandemic, with Rabbi Steve [Glazer] having to step away. There’s a lot of grieving that has been processed through the last 18-20 months,” Raphael said. “And it will be nice to have some great, hopeful vision of the future with energy and vibrancy going forward. And they certainly have it.”