Two rabbis better than one at Adas Israel

Rabbis Aaron Alexander, left, and Lauren Holtzblatt will lead Adas Israel Congregation in Washington as co-senior rabbis. Photo by Dan Schere.

On Monday, Rabbis Aaron Alexander and Lauren Holtzblatt sat together at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, ready to start an interview about their appointment as co-senior rabbis of the city’s largest Conservative synagogue.

Then Alexander shot his counterpart a question.

“If you have a rough day, and you’re like, ‘I need to ground myself and center myself,’ where will you go for two hours?” he asked Holtzblatt.

“I feel like he’s wanting a particular answer,” she told a reporter before answering her partner. “I take my banjo and I play for two hours and I meditate. What are you thinking?”

“I’ll study the Gemara,” he said.

Holtzblatt, 40, and Alexander, 42, have spent the last five months as interim head rabbis after Senior Rabbi Gil Steinlauf announced his departure in April. On Sept. 18, the synagogue’s board of directors approved a proposal submitted by Holtzblatt and Alexander to form a partnership to lead Adas Israel.

The rabbis, who are not married to each other, called their partnership a chevruta, the traditional word for study partners of holy texts. Holtzblatt said the board was supportive of the dual rabbi concept but asked many questions about how the model would work from a practical standpoint.

“I think they entered this process with an enormous amount of respect, and love and transparency that this may not work,” she said.

Adas Israel President Ricki Gerger said the board of directors welcomed the idea for a co-senior rabbi model when Holtzblatt and Alexander presented it last month. Yet some members still had reservations.

“I think people were doubtful in the beginning,” Gerger said. “It think that’s logical in the absence of not knowing if something’s going to work out.”

Gerger said the board wanted to know the details of how the rabbis’ responsibilities would be divided and other potential decisions that might require both to be involved. She said Holtzblatt and Alexander spent two and a half hours explaining their proposal, and at the end the board was satisfied.

Gerger said she is already familiar with Holtzblatt and Alexander’s strengths from their work with the synagogue until now.

“These two rabbis are both highly respected,” she said. “It’s like two for one. We get to have both of them.”

Holtzblatt came to Adas Israel in 2011 as an associate rabbi. She has been in charge of the congregation’s caretaking and bereavement responsibilities. She leads the congregation’s Jewish Mindfulness Center of Washington and co-created its MakomDC adult learning curriculum.

Alexander arrived in 2015 as an associate rabbi after spending 10 years as an associate dean and lecturer rabbinic and Jewish law at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles. He has been involved in the congregation’s social action efforts, which have focused on issues such as gun violence prevention and support for refugees.

After Steinlauf’s departure, Holtzblatt and Alexander talked and came to the conclusion that each one was capable of leading the congregation alone. But the two together would benefit the congregation more.

“It can be very lonely at the top, and I think having a chevruta at the top … you deeply respect their Torah,” she said. “We walk hand-in-hand, and with doing it together there’s something much stronger about having a partner to go forth with in the world in this particular way.”

Alexander said he agreed that it made more sense to continue the partnership since they respected each other’s work, had worked alongside each other as associate rabbis for two years and for five months had already been in charge together.

“We realized that this was not the type of thing where you say, ‘Well that was nice, now let’s go our separate ways,” he said.

Alexander said that as co-leaders, they will not be joined at the hip. They will take turns leading services and continue to oversee the specific programs they were in charge of before. But other areas, such as governance, financial matters and religious practices, will be shared.

“In institutions like this, there are dozens of decisions that are being made every day, sometimes every hour,” he said. “Some of them are significant decisions as to the directions the synagogue will take.”

One example, he said, could be a question about ritual practice.

“Imagine a congregant comes to me and says, ‘I would really like to add these two prayers into the Shabbat morning service.’ If I’m the senior rabbi and I’m running that service, I’m just going to make that decision on the fly. But if for whatever reason I think, ‘You know what, that’s a decision that could have implications on any service somebody runs in this building, including my co-senior rabbi,’ that’s something Rabbi Holtzblatt and I will have to consider,” he said.

This type of collaboration could mean that congregants may have to wait an hour or two for an answer to a question, the rabbis said. But Alexander sees this as a positive.

“It gives us time to consider the kinds of questions that are being asked,” he said.

Holtzblatt and Alexander are formulating new ideas for the synagogue. One is to create a music center to help musicians become familiar with the genres of Jewish music.

Holtzblatt also said they hope to expand the preschool and religious school space during the next three-to-five years.

Alexander said one of his goals is to build relationships with more churches in wards 7 and 8 of the city.

“We feel strongly connected to our brothers and sisters in Southeast Washington, and we recognize that for their future, a lot of structural changes have to be made in terms of affordable housing and job creation,” he said.

But the rabbis’ ultimate goal is also their challenge: creating a personal relationship with every Adas Israel member. Holtzblatt likened this to creating a shtiebel, an intimate synagogue convened in a house, but one with 1,500 members.

“In a shtiebel, everybody knows each other,” she said. “You’re connected in an incredibly close way. Relationships are what build the shul. There’s a deep amount of chesed [love] present in moments for people. It is a place where prayer is emotional, connected, actually takes people from where they’re praying somewhere.”

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