They had him at the questionnaire.
Rabbi Benjamin Shull says he only needed to read Tikvat Israel Congregation’s application for a new rabbi to know that he wanted to lead the Rockville synagogue.
“It was the most attractive and compelling questionnaire I’ve seen,” says Shull, 57, who joined the Conservative synagogue this month. “They described themselves as a congregation with a Type-B personality in a Type-A community. It was pretty clear that they knew themselves.”
Born in Philadelphia and raised in Richmond, Shull comes to Rockville from New Jersey, where for 10 years he led Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley, near New York City.
“My wife [Stacy Lang] describes the move as a lifestyle choice,” he says, seated in his not-quite-moved-into synagogue study.
At Tikvat Israel the Shulls will be able “to live closer to the synagogue and to share more in the Jewish life of the congregants,” he says. There is a large core of observant members and a high level of volunteerism, including congregants who lead services, he explains.
In an interview, he shares his thoughts on the role of the synagogue and some of the issues he wants to emphasize at his new home.
“The synagogue is one of the few institutions that bring together old and young,” he says.
Yet that advantage is undercut by society’s lack of valuing what older Jews can pass on to the young.
“There isn’t an emphasis on sharing wisdom,” he says. “If wisdom were valued in our society, older people would stick around [the synagogue].”
In addition to personal wisdom, Shull includes what he calls “the wisdom of the ages” preserved in Jewish tradition as part of the synagogue’s resources.
“If we’re not in the wisdom business we might as well get out.”
Shull also wants to focus on “the changing of the Jewish family,” including the issue of intermarriage. “The Conservative movement is a little late to the game in addressing intermarriage,” he says. “Parents of adult children who have intermarried have mixed feelings about it. So I’d like to explore that in this congregation.”
And he wants to make conversion to Judaism a viable option. “We don’t do enough to make the path of conversion clear enough to people,” he says. “My belief is to say it’s always an avenue.”
“It feels like he’s one of us already,” Melanie Grishman, Tikvat Israel’s president, says of the new rabbi. “It felt like a comfortable decision.”
The congregation took an unusual path that led it to Shull. In 2012, when Rabbi Howard Gorin retired after 30 years of leading Tikvat Israel and one of its predecessors, members decided not to hire a new rabbi right away.
Instead, it brought in Rabbi David Abramson as interim rabbi. In that position, he helped members figure out what changes they would like to make and what kind of rabbi they wanted next.
Rabbi Abramson’s tenure was to be one year. It lasted for three.
“At the end of the first year we weren’t in the financial position to hire a full-time rabbi,” Grishman says. “Rabbi Abramson stayed on part time.”
Asked if she would recommend hiring an interim rabbi after a longtime rabbi leaves, Grishman says, “It worked for us. It gave us time to figure out who we were and what we wanted.”
She describes the 300-member-unit congregation as “completely egalitarian and inclusive.” There are Latino members and African-American members.
Also, “we have several people who are on a journey to become Jewish. We value those people,” she says. “But we don’t have a lot of young families with children. We’d like to grow a little more in that area.”
If Tikvat Israel has a Type-B personality, it also knows what it wants — and doesn’t want — in its rabbi.
“We don’t want a rabbi whose feelings will be hurt if we don’t want him to tell us what page we’re on,” Grishman says. “We know what page we’re on.” ■