Rabbi Fabián Werbin was installed recently as rabbi of Kol Shalom in Rockville. Born in Buenos Aires, Werbin, 50, previously served as associate rabbi of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County and Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Conservative congregations like Kol Shalom.
What made you want to become a rabbi?
I was brought up in a home that has a lot of love and passion for our traditions. There was a lot of Yiddishkeit (the quality of being Jewish), and both of my parents were Hebrew teachers beside their own professions. I decided to increase my observance at my own pace. After high school, I studied three years of biochemistry. I realized that was not my calling. And the same day I decided to quit my biochemistry studies, I took a bus and went straight to El Seminario [The Seminary] to ask about rabbinical studies. It took some time until I found my real calling, but I was happy I found it.
You’re a native of Argentina. You served as a rabbi in Colombia. What Jewish customs from South America are you bringing to Kol Shalom?
There is a lot of energy in South America. Maybe it’s the Latino blood that runs in our veins or maybe it’s what they put in the water there, it’s difficult to know. But we try to bring the spirit, the passion, the warmth and hopefully the love for our tradition as well.
What’s your vision for Kol Shalom?
Kol Shalom is an amazing congregation. The idea is to try to continue what has been created and strengthen it, and there’s always room to improve. I would like to see Kol Shalom growing in all aspects of the congregation: in Torah, in commitment to our society, tikkun olam, the youth programs and adult programs.
What’s the difference between a congregation in Argentina and one in the Washington suburbs?
I was in charge of 350 families while I was a student in Argentina. It was six hours away from Buenos Aires and I took a bus every Thursday night. I was there Friday, Shabbat, Sunday and then Sunday night I would come back home. I was able to relate not only with the people of Buenos Aires where I grew up, but people who live in other cities. Each congregation has its own identity in Argentina. The synagogues are strong but the sports and the social aspect of Argentinian Jewry takes place less in the synagogue, unfortunately; it takes place more in country clubs, and there are many, many Jewish country clubs.
In Colombia, it was different. It was a tiny congregation. Everybody knew every single person and it was an amazing experience for us because we learned different customs and different cultures, and we grew as human beings. People in Colombia are very happy. Even though poverty is rampant, they’re extremely happy and the Jewish community is very active in helping society in general.
Roanoke was our first congregation in America and we were very happy there. It was an opportunity for us to get to know and learn that on Chanukah we receive presents. We didn’t do that in Argentina and we tried to keep that hidden from our kids, but it didn’t work very well.
You are passionate about Talmud. How did that start?
I started studying Talmud about 10 years ago and I try to study at least one page per day. I have a partner whom I study with once a week who lives in Borough Park [New York]. I am 10 pages away from finishing the whole Talmud. We study very slowly. But it’s my pleasure to not only teach it but also to study it.
What’s your favorite part about learning Talmud?
It gives you the possibility to know that everyone has access to that text. It does not just belong to a small group of people. I wanted to do it because I wanted to be able to open a Talmud in Aramaic and understand whatever is written there without any aid beyond what is on the page.
That’s a tool that I wanted to acquire. I think I acquired some of it.
Kol Shalom has had two rabbis in the past four years ― Rabbi Gil Steinlauf and Interim Rabbi Eric Rosin. They followed Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman, who was founding rabbi for many years. What do you bring to Kol Shalom that’s different?
I’m sure what the rabbis before me brought was excellent. I want to also bring excellence, passion, love for our tradition and commitment to our tradition. I want people to come to the synagogue and leave with a sense that they learn something new every time they are with other congregants or the rabbi.
What do you want people in the Washington Jewish community to know about Kol Shalom?
Kol Shalom is committed to Jewish values, to Jewish education and to spiritual growth. Each of the members of Kol Shalom brings those values to life. I think that creates a special environment.
Charlotte Freedberg is a freelance writer.