Rabbi Gil Steinlauf of Kol Shalom in Rockville told synagogue President Ilana Bar-Levav on May 19 that he will be leaving to lead Princeton University’s Jewish student center on July 1.
That took the congregation by surprise four days later when Bar-Levav relayed the news via email.
“We thought he was staying,” Bar-Levav said last week in an interview.
Three years earlier, Steinlauf was the only serious candidate to succeed retiring Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman.
The timing is unfortunate, Bar-Levav told WJW. The Conservative movement is at the end of its annual rabbinic hiring cycle: Rabbis have already signed their contracts and are ready to begin work at their new congregations
By the time Ben-Levav sent out her email, she had convened an emergency meeting of the board of directors and the board of trustees to begin planning for the synagogue’s future.
Bar-Levav said the boards agreed that Kol Shalom will seek to hire an interim rabbi for a year. And they will also begin a search for a permanent rabbi to begin work in July 2023.
Bar-Levav said Maltzman agreed to lead high holiday services together with Director of Engagement Sally Heckelman and officiate life cycle events that occur until that time.
She said an additional difficulty is the acute shortage of rabbis in the Conservative movement.
In December, the movement sent a disquieting message to dozens of synagogues looking for a new rabbi. At least 80 Conservative synagogues anticipated rabbi vacancies — approximately one of every seven affiliated with the movement, the email said. At most, 50 to 60 rabbis would be looking for new jobs.
Bar-Levav said that if Kol Shalom is not able to hire an interim rabbi, its members would lead services and deliver sermons. “We started as a lay-led congregation,” she said.
In his three years at Kol Shalom, Steinlauf has “done a great job for us,” she said. He brought the largely middle-aged congregation “a lot of important ideas: What happens to Conservative Judaism? How to invigorate a synagogue.”
Steinlauf formed B’yachad religious school, which combined the students of Kol Shalom, Shaare Torah and Tikvat Israel. The school closed this spring, as Kol Shalom established its own religious school. Former partners Shaare Torah and Tikvat Israel continue working together.
Steinlauf also founded the Jewish Teen Leadership Institute to bring teens into dialogue with world leaders and reflect on the encounters through Torah study.
In a May 24 email to Kol Shalom members, Steinlauf recalled his pitch to them when he led Shabbat services as a candidate three years earlier: a suburban synagogue with the energy and vitality of a city synagogue.
“Though that vision was a really big one, you knew that you were up for the challenge I was placing on you to become a center of intellectual, cultural and spiritual leadership in Montgomery County,” he wrote.
Steinlauf, a Princeton alumnus, will become the executive director of the university’s Center for Jewish Life, the campus Hillel student agency.
In his email to Kol Shalom, Steinlauf explained what he called a “painful decision.”
“I was in no way looking for another job. I had a conversation with a friend of mine who is on the board of the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton about the imminent departure of their beloved, long-term executive director [Julie Roth], and that conversation turned into the potentially ideal fit I could be for that role.”
The same day, Center for Jewish Life Board Chair Marc Mehl announced Steinlauf’s hiring as executive director in an email. Mehl’s search committee “screened dozens of candidates and invited Rabbi Gil to campus to meet members of our community and University partners.”
Mehl continued, “The feedback was enthusiastically positive. We saw his scholarly passion for teaching and his commitment to fostering dynamic new leaders within the Jewish community and the world. It was clear he was the perfect choice to lead CJL.”
“It was one of those moments in life,” Steinlauf told WJW on Sunday. “The job really speaks to my greatest passions and interests. I had to make a very difficult decision.”