Rabbi William Rudolph didn’t lose his competitive streak when he retired two years ago from Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County — and that’s especially true when the other contestant is his successor, Rabbi Greg Harris.
The two men were out on Chesapeake Bay last week with congregants for Beth El’s annual men’s fishing trip. It was anything but a lazy afternoon on the water.
The rabbis set out in separate boats, each joined by fellow fisherman. Harris’ group caught the most fish.
But Rudolph’s fish weighed more.
“He won,” Harris said the next day.
The 73-year-old Rudolph won’t spend his retirement with his feet up in a fishing boat. No longer responsible to a congregation, he’s turned his attention to new challenges.
One is the Conservative movement, which he wants to “help rebuild from the grassroots with young Jews.”
The “Conservative [movement] is struggling the most, partly because the center is struggling for its place across the land in ways religious and political,” says Rudolph, a Bethesda resident who was honored last week by the Jewish Community Relations Council last week for service to the community.
“But the movement is struggling also because holding on to the mantra of ‘tradition and change’ is difficult when change is [as] rapid as it is now.”
Rudolph, who began his career as a Reform rabbi, said his embrace of the Conservative movement — and his drive to help rebuild it — comes from his belief that Conservative Judaism “makes the most sense” — because it preserves tradition while adapting to change as necessary.
But the movement is struggling to maintain its membership. The number of American Jewish adults who identify as Conservative and belong to a synagogue fell by about 21 percent – from 723,000 in 1990 to 570,000 in 2013, JTA reported in 2015, the same year Rudolph retired.
One way Rudolph is trying to address this is through Ramah Day Camp of Greater Washington.
In 2014, when he first announced his intention to retire, Rudolph began working with Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal of Shaare Torah in Gaithersburg to start the camp. The camp’s goal is to build up the Conservative movement’s presence in upper Montgomery County.
Camp Ramah of New England, a Conservative-affiliated overnight camp in Palmer, Mass., provided guidance on day-to-day operations and recruited Rabbi Rami Schwartzer to become the Washington-area camp’s director in 2015. Schwartzer calls Rudolph “a mentor, a friend and very much like family.”
Rudolph in retirement also turned his attention to millennials, who have been widely reported as being less involved with religious institutions than previous generations.
“The challenge is between when they leave college and when they have a family and kids,” he says. “What happens to them?”
Here, he answers his own question. “They seem to create their own Judaism — which is not terrible. But the Jewish community worries about whether we are going to see those people.”
With that in mind, Rudolph and Blumenthal started the Jewish Millennial Engagement project. The goal is to give young adults in the Washington area a way to experience Judaism without the formalities of a synagogue.
Schwartzer figures into this project as well, which Rudolph has described as “non-Chabad Chabad.” Schwartzer is the “roving rabbi” — hosting Shabbat dinners, offering pastoral counseling, teaching Hebrew classes and just chatting over coffee.
Rudolph has done some roving in his time — going from a campus rabbi for the Hillel organization, to a world Hillel administrator, to pulpit rabbi at Beth El of Montgomery County.
Out of college, the Philadelphia native wanted to become a college professor and teach biblical history. Instead, he became a Reform rabbi and in the 1970s was the Hillel director at Michigan State University in East Lansing and later at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
During that time he was exposed to a more traditional style of Judaism that grew on him.
“It was a process,” he says during an interview at a Rockville Panera Bread, sipping a smoothie and eating one of the bakery’s mini cakes.
That process began with Rudolph kashering his kitchen. He also began putting on tefillin, the ritual leather straps and boxes with Torah verses that men traditionally put on daily.
In 1988, he was accepted as a member of the Conservative movement’s rabbis’ association, the Rabbinical Assembly.
“You come in for a day, and [the membership committee] asks you a million questions. And I guess I gave the right answers,” he says in his distinctive matter-of-fact tone.
Nearly everyone who characterizes Rudolph mentions his dry sense of humor. Others point to his humility.
He demonstrates both when he is asked to meet for an interview for a prospective profile. “Must be a slow news period,” he says.
He came to Washington in 1980, when he became Hillel’s associate international director. He became Beth El’s assistant rabbi in 1983 and its senior rabbi in 2001.
If Rudolph keeps one hand on his fishing rod, he still keeps the other on the pulpit. He serves as part-time rabbi at Fauquier Jewish Congregation in Warrenton, Va. He also co-chairs the Greater Washington Forum on Israeli Arab Issues, and he works with the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee of Greater Washington.
He describes himself as “really lucky.”
“I’ve had basically two jobs in my 40-some years — one with Hillel and one with the synagogue,” he says. “Ninety-nine percent of the days of all those years, I wondered why I am getting paid to do what I was doing because it was so meaningful and so much fun.”