Two rabbis look ahead after rare turnover

Rabbis Mitchell Berkowitz, left, and Michael Safra want to be guides to their congregants, not authority figures.
Photo by David Holzel

Here’s a preview of one of Rabbi Michael Safra’s High Holiday sermons at B’nai Israel Congregation.

“My sermon is going to be all about you,” he says, sitting in his study in the Rockville synagogue. “The future of the Jewish community is about individuals charting their own path with their own tools — with rabbis as guides.”

Fifteen years after joining the 1,100 member Conservative congregation as assistant rabbi, Safra, 42, moved into the senior rabbi’s study this summer when Rabbi Jonathan Schnitzer retired. In 2017, hierarchies are fading, Safra says. “The TV networks don’t tell us when to watch their shows. And the task of a rabbi is no longer telling people what to do.”

The synagogue he grew up in in Atlanta, Ahavat Achim, was the mother of all Conservative synagogues in the city, a citadel of hierarchy and tradition.

“It used to be that you’d celebrate in being a large synagogue — ‘Come join. We have everything,’” he says.

Now large synagogues like B’nai Israel need to downplay their size. “Join our synagogue. Don’t worry, we’re not that big.”

“My big goal is to turn the model upside down and think of the clergy as guides on multiple journeys. We have to celebrate the great people who came before us and remember that we don’t have all the answers.

We have to make relationships with our members and between our members,” Safra says.

Now there’s a new assistant rabbi, Mitchell Berkowitz. He enters Safra’s study after an adult education meeting ran overtime. Adult ed is one of main portfolios of the 28-year-old recent graduate of Jewish Theological Seminary.

The congregants are sophisticated and well read, Berkowitz says. “Everyone is an expert in something. And a lot of what adult education is is convincing them they have the tools to contribute to Jewish conversation.”

B’nai Israel has had little turnover in its top staff, and while Safra has a new title, he isn’t a new face here. Even he’s looking for a breath of fresh air.

“For 15 years we haven’t brought in a new rabbinic voice,” he says. “Mitch brings a lot of creativity and new ideas. What attracted us about him is that he understands the synagogue’s players. He understands what rabbis do and how to change institutions.”

“This is a congregation that has a hundred-year history,” Berkowitz says.

“Ninety-two,” Safra corrects him.

“Ninety-two, with only four rabbis,” Berkowitz continues. “There’s been great continuity. So this is a transition on many levels.”

Rabbis are people too. Safra is married with three children, ages 9 to 13. Berkowitz grew up in Freehold, N.J., and came to Rockville from New York City.

Asked if they have interests that might not be part of a rabbi’s persona — skateboarding, say, or playing the tuba — Safra said that he water skis, which the synagogue president finds unusual.

Says Berkowitz, “I’ll get in a round of golf if I get a chance.” He’s also reading Jewish sci-fi.

Berkowitz, too, is mulling over ideas for High Holiday sermons, when the entire congregation will meet him for the first time.

“I’m thinking about the theme of standing at Sinai. Tradition says we all stood together at Sinai, those alive at the time and those who came after. I’d like to back it up a step and talk about walking to Sinai. What it is to move forward to Sinai. Making it like a journey, like lives should be.”

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