It was somewhat of a surprise when my nephew decided to concentrate in Jewish Studies at Tufts and less of a surprise when, a year after graduation, he entered rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in New York. We attended his ordination from HUC at Temple Emanu-El in New York five years ago. We were happy to be there although the ceremony itself (lasting, as I recall, about three full days without a bathroom break) was excruciating. (I am not exaggerating; it included the calling up of each rabbinic, cantorial and other graduate one-by-one for an off-mike discussion with the school leadership. The audience just sat there for ever and ever.)
Eric found his first job as an assistant rabbi in Syosset, New York, where he remained for five years. We never went to see him in action at the North Shore Synagogue. I’m not sure why we didn’t, but Long Island (that is where I am told that Syosset is located) has always seemed to me somewhere on another planet, reachable only by air to JFK or LaGuardia.
But earlier this year, after a typically long and I am sure emotional search process, Eric was given the job a senior (and only) rabbi at Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield, CT. I had never been to Ridgefield, but have always been impressed by the historic and contemporary beauty of western Connecticut, and we vowed that one day we would visit Eric at his new home.
When he and Marcella were in Washington last May and had dinner at our house, we learned of the November 14 formal installation (Eric was actually starting to work in July), and we decided to come.
Ridgefield is a beautiful town. To the outsider, it seems to ooze wealth and serenity. The Main Street stores are upper end, and the residential areas you see driving up from New York City on Route 35 are colonial palatial. To be sure, there are areas of the town that appear to be only upper middle class, but they are limited.
Eric and Marcella have bought a nice condominium in one of those upper middle class enclaves, but the temple itself is housed in an expanded 19th century residence in a very nice, bucolic part of Ridgefield. As to the event itself, we knew that there was to be a 6 p.m. dinner at the temple, followed by a Friday night service which would include the installation itself. Other than this, we did not know what to expect.
It is not a large congregation; it has a few hundred families, but is clearly an active congregation with a very attractive and well maintained facility. Close to 200 people showed up for the installation dinner. This included not only congregants (including tens of 6th and 7th graders, who did everything from act as greeters, to serve the food, clear the tables, hand out programs and much more, all with good cheer, style and friendliness). but also representatives of several Christian churches in Ridgefield, at least two of the town’s Selectmen (one being a female Selectman), and his former senior rabbi and about a dozen others who drove to Ridgefield from Syosset. And, his predecessor clergyman at TSI, who had served the Congregation for over twenty years was also there, with his wife, in seeming good cheer.
It was a buffet dinner (a very nice green salad, salmon, chicken, a pasta salad and green beans) and a variety of non-alcoholic drinks. The president of the Congregation delivered some very nice remarks at the dinner, and introduced some of the non-members in attendance. At 8 p.m., services began. Unusual for a Friday night, and because of the special nature of this service, they were not over until after 10 p.m., when an informal Oneg Shabbat offered coffee (real and fake), tea, and deserts to the night owls of the congregation.
The service was organized to maximize participation by clergy (from all denominations) and congregants. There were readings given by four or five ministers, by the selectmen, by the temple leadership, and even we were asked to lead a reading, which we gladly did. The Saturday bat mitzvah girl and her family participated. The 7th graders led part of the service. The temple choir was joined by the choir of one of the local churches and sounded strong and vibrant. The cantor was joined by the cantor from Syosset and certain others for part of the service. The Syosset rabbi gave a very nice talk about Eric, and generally about the relationship between congregations and their leaders. The now emeritus rabbi of Shearith Israel spoke very generously. Eric gave nice remarks. And it must be said that a good time was had by all. And, even more importantly, every single speaker, without exception, spoke warm words of welcome. Very warm words.
Clearly coming into the leadership of a congregation is a difficult and anxiety provoking task. You don’t know your congregants; they don’t know you. Everyone has different expectations. You want to change things, but not too much. You have the former clergy, with whom you want to maintain strong relationships as you change the temple they have led for so many years. You want to build (and retain) membership. You want to increase activities. You want to get along with everyone. You want to be respected. You want to teach. And you want to learn. And, at this time of general financial crisis, you want to keep your temple’s coffers at least partially full.
We think that Eric and Marcella will love being in Ridgefield, although we know that every day will not be equally smooth. We think that Eric and the congregation will grow together, and that he could not have found a better place to hang his kippah. It appears that he will be surrounded by well meaning, friendly folks, in a very welcoming community. We wish him the best.