Ten months ago when he began his job as rabbi at Kemp Mill Synagogue, Rabbi Brahm Weinberg decided that he would not change anything in the synagogue for a full year.
“I feel like a person can’t make an informed decision without understanding the culture of the place,” he says now of that early decision.
He has kept his promise for the most part, changing a few minor things such as the order of prayers and permitting congregants to throw candy at b’nai mitzvah kids to celebrate.
Now that the year has ended, Weinberg is thinking of a few more tweaks.
But he sees no need for big changes. After a year of observation, he’s come to better understand the “dynamics and history of the shul.”
Asked what the biggest challenge has been at the modern Orthodox congregation in Silver Spring, he thinks for a few minutes. Weinberg had led Young Israel of West Hartford in Connecticut. With 80 families, it was smaller than Kemp Mill, which has 340 families.
“When a rabbi comes to a small shul that’s just getting off the ground then the rabbi and the shul grow together,” he says. “But when an outsider comes to an established shul, it’s hard to find your place and the process of growing together is slower. But I feel it’s going in the right direction.”
Weinberg is looking forward to enhancing the youth program. The synagogue will have two full-time youth directors from Israeli next year as part of the shlichut, or emissary, program with the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
He is interested in engaging with the broader Washington Jewish community and working with synagogues of other denominations to create social, learning and Israel programs that “we can all rally behind.”
There are two rabbinical councils in the Washington area that perform kashrut certification and other services. Weinberg has not yet joined either of them, saying he’s “still in the process of determining where I could make the most impact.”
He says he’s most surprised by “the depth of the diversity” at his new synagogue in terms of Jewish practice and knowledge, as well as age and length of time in the community. His challenge is how to cater to all these groups under one roof.
“It would be my dream to maintain a shul that can speak to so many people,” he says.
If he is to bring change to this diverse congregation, he will have to be open and honest about why he is choosing to make each change, he says, “If people feel safe, then change is not so threatening.”
He’d also like to work on the warmth of the shul. On a given Saturday morning, there can be more than 700 people in the building. In a congregation this large, it’s not so easy for people to get to know each other, especially new members.
One simple way Weinberg is trying to do that is by including pictures and information about two families in each weekly announcement sheet.
Modern Orthodoxy is changing and Weinberg says that the Modern Orthodox community is being pulled to the left and right. But “if you don’t want to be pulled in one direction or the other, you need to maintain the middle,” he says.
This polarization is not unique to the Orthodox community, of course. But, he says, “it would be an incredible source of pride to buck that trend by showing that we can be united and people can still coexist despite our differences.”