In Arlington, the rabbi at last

Rabbi Natan Freller of Congregation Etz Hayim
Photo courtesy Congregation Etz Hayim

Rav Natan, as the rabbi is known — “I’m not a big formal person” — was waiting.

As was his congregation-to-be. Both were waiting for the newly ordained rabbi, of Sao Paulo, Brazil, to receive permission from U.S. immigration officials to stay a year in the United States to work as the spiritual leader of Congregation Etz Hayim in Arlington.

It arrived in mid-August.

By then, Rabbi Natan Freller, 30, had been in Arlington more than a month. While many rabbis start their tenures around July 1, Freller, on a student visa, could not.

He was ordained in May at the Conservative movement’s California seminary, the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University.

Freller, who is single, arrived in Arlington in early July. He took the weeks he was unemployed to learn his way around by walking, biking and on a scooter; in pursuing Jewish study; and by reaching out to others. Because COVID-19 pandemic restrictions had precluded face-to-face interviews and visits to Etz Hayim, all talks were online, making this his first opportunity to meet Etz Hayim congregants face to face.

“I was moving here, getting to know the city. I took this opportunity to study a lot,” he said, later adding that “Talmud is one of my passions,” and he connected with teachers in Israel and elsewhere online.

Freller volunteered, too — again, often online, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and distance. He likes working with young adults and youths — which he’s previously done in schools, synagogue and summer camps — and worked with young adults this summer.

“I volunteered at Moishe House” in Arlington where his teaching included Tishah B’Av , and at the Den Collective, where he taught a weekly parshah class for the Washington-area organization.

“I also taught in my home community in Brazil, as a volunteer, online, too. I taught their youth department staff and helped them plan for the coming year,” he said.

He participated — not as the rabbi — in Etz Hayim services, getting to know congregants virtually, and happy to see them assuming roles in leading worship.

Freller lived in a congregant’s home until moving just before the High Holidays.

“I have a basement suite,” rabbi search committee member Naomi Harris, vice president of membership and communications for Etz Hayim, said recently.  Freller also met congregants mask-to-mask in her backyard.

The timing of the wait was a concern. Freller wanted to be there for his congregation by Rosh Hashanah. Harris said, “I was personally nervous,” noting that this wait was taking place as High Holiday preparations were in the works. (His contract is for longer than his permission to work, and he is looking into ways to continue at Etz Hayim’s rabbi beyond the one year.)

Congregation Etz Hayim takes a Ride with the Rav on Sept. 6.
Courtesy of Congregation Etz Hayim

Freller’s enthusiasm, and passion for “in-reach and outreach” were important to the long-established congregation of 150 households that is in the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor, Harris said.  Congregants participate in services, and pull together as a community and are involved in social justice. Also, “There are a lot of unaffiliated Jews in Northern Virginia and a lot of young unaffiliated Jews,” she said.

All that appealed to Freller, who shares Etz Hayim’s view of the synagogue as being a vibrant presence in the community. “I see how much they care about the community. That was very important to me, that this is a real community.”

The congregation welcomed him informally and in-person over Labor Day weekend with “Ride with the Rav.” He bicycled with congregants through Arlington with stops in parks where more congregants waited.

Freller sees potential in the unaffiliated Jewish population: “I like doing outreach and showing them how they can access their Judaism. A couple of days ago, I was organizing my office —the synagogue is still closed — and someone rang the bell. It was a 22-year-old man who just moved to the area, and saw a synagogue and rang the bell, and it just happened a rabbi was inside.”

Their meeting, Freller said, is one way to start to develop relationships in the Jewish community.  “We are still in touch.”

Engaged in his hometown Jewish community growing up, at 16 he was teaching Hebrew school. “Some of my friends called me ‘rav’ or ‘ravi’ since I was 16 years old because they knew I would be a rabbi,” he said — another reason he’s known as Rav Natan.

But he was unsure he wanted to be a rabbi. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in business, marketing and entrepreneurship and worked in the field for two years while continuing his involvement in religious teaching. The rabbinate beckoned. He headed to Ziegler.

He has served as a rabbinic intern with congregations in Los Angeles, in Marietta, Ga., in Sao Paulo and in Israel.

Freller also trained as a shochet in Jerusalem, but, “I barely eat any meat, for ethical reasons” — a concern for the treatment of the animals. “I’m practically a vegetarian except for chicken on Shabbat.”

During the pandemic, congregants miss being together, he said. “Part of what I am trying to bring to the High Holidays is a sense of community. Even though we are not together, we are a community.” It’s all about relationships, he said.

“I think the part I miss most is kiddush,” he said. “I miss being able to schmooze.”

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