Rabbi Gordon Fuller is not a movement guy.
“Movements do more to separate us than unite us,” he says.
Last Shabbat, Fuller, 61, led his first services as rabbi of Shirat HaNefesh, an independent synagogue in Chevy Chase.
“I believe in pluralism. I like that Shirat HaNefesh is an independent congregation,” he says.
As rabbi, he wants his services to contain “something for everyone to relate to—creative tunes, traditional tunes, meditation, discussion.”
And he wants to foster an environment where “everyone who comes in the door is welcomed.”
It was Fuller’s love of Jewish text study that led him to the rabbinate. Born in Detroit to a Conservative family, and educated in the Chicago area, Fuller first worked in Jewish education in Florida and Texas.
In Dallas, where he was education director for the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, he began text study with local Orthodox rabbis. “In general, the rabbis who have time to study text are Orthodox rabbis,” he says. In 2004, after several years of study, he asked his teachers to perform s’micha on him—to ordain him.
“They were happy to do it,” he says. “I got my ordination the old-fashioned way.”
“He’s a seriously learned person,” says Nan Wellins, president of Shirat HaNefesh. “Jewishly learned and open minded—those things don’t always come together.”
She says the rabbi’s “eclectic background” appealed to members when they searched for a successor to founding Rabbi Gerald Serotta, who in 2014 left to become executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington.
“We were sad to see him go, but at the same time we were glad for him,” Wellins says, adding that Hazzan Ramón Tasat provided stability during the transition.
Fuller’s eclecticism meshes very well with Shirat HaNefesh’s community culture. “We’re kind of the un-shul here,” she says. “We’re open to anyone who is on a Jewish path.”
Congregants were also impressed by Fuller’s “impressive resume in tikkun olam,” Wellins says.
Before he came to the Washington area, Fuller led Conservative Congregation Agudath Jacob in Waco, Texas, for 11 years.
“He has a strong record of serious involvement in Waco, heading up various efforts to improve life of diverse populations,” Wellins says.
Fuller is chairman of Avance-Waco, an intergenerational program to help Hispanic families out of poverty. And he is on the board of the Good People Fund, a tzedakah collective.
One thing Fuller looks to do here, which he was unable to do in Waco, is oversee the growth of his congregation.
“In Waco, there was no opportunity for growth. Most of the congregation’s stability —not even growth — came from the people I converted.”
Shirat HaNefesh was founded in 2008 with 30 member units, according to Wellins. The congregation has grown to 90 member units.
Fuller says he hopes the congregation can grow to about 200 families in the next three to five years. If so, “it will be a more stable community financially and able to look for a proper home.” Shirat HaNefesh meets at North Chevy Chase Christian Church.
Fuller is joined by his wife, Sharon. A son already lives in the area with his family. They are members of Oseh Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation in Laurel.
Fuller says: “I’m not looking to steal them from Oseh Shalom.”