Rabbi Jonah Layman had a tough first year at Shaare Tefila Congregation. On his first Shabbat with the congregation in December 1994, his predecessor, Rabbi Martin Halpern died. With his new congregants, Layman saw to the deceased and prepared a funeral.
Months later, Layman and the congregation led the funeral of four members of the Goff family, who had been murdered at home. There was more to come. On Sept. 11, 2001, a congregant died in the terror attack at the Pentagon.
But there were joys too — the baby naming of Layman and his wife, Lenore’s, newborn, Aliza, on that same first Shabbat. And eight years ago, the dedication of the congregation’s new home on Georgia Avenue in Olney, after five years without a building.
These sad and joyous events “set the stage for the partnership” between rabbi and congregants, Layman, 57, said last week. “That’s how we got to know each other.”
The Conservative congregation celebrated Layman’s 25 years at Shaare Tefila during a weekend of events on Dec. 7 and 8, including a Shabbat service honoring the rabbi and a gala attended by 170 people.
Stefanie Sanders Levy, the anniversary events chair, described the rabbi as a man who, for 25 years, looked at the duties written in his contract only as a jumping-off point:
“You have shown true joy welcoming our newborns into the Jewish community at their britot mila and simchat bat ceremonies, acted silly at Purim, personalized our children’s b’nai mitzvah and wedding ceremonies, spoken from your heart during every sermon, and even shed tears in saying goodbye to our loved ones.”
Congregation President Judy Bresler described Layman’s leadership style: “While his manner is gentle, his practice as a rabbi is firmly rooted in well-thought beliefs about God and Judaism,” she said. “I remember not too long after he was hired and before he implemented fully egalitarian practices for women, he taught a class, which my mother and I attended, explaining the theological and liturgical basis for it. That’s leadership.”
Layman grew up in the Philadelphia area, the son of a Conservative rabbi. He entered rabbinical school “because I loved studying everything Jewish and being Jewish,” he said.
He became a pulpit rabbi “because I thought it would give me the most opportunities to encounter people on their Jewish journeys.”
Meaning for him comes through lifecycle events ― meeting with engaged couples and families planning funerals — those “intense times,” he said.
For a man who, ironically, tries to avoid being the center of attention, the celebration was still a happy occasion.
“It was worth it for me to be outside my comfort zone,” he told congregants, and then thought back to 1994.
“That year we – Lenore and I – knew that we found a loving and blessed community and we knew that we were fortunate to be here.”