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Finding the right rabbi: ‘Mission accomplished’

Finding the right rabbi: ‘Mission accomplished’

Jun 17, 2019

From the Westmore News, July 14, 2019 (Rye Brook edition)
https://westmorenews.com/Content/Community-News/Community-News/Article/F...

Finding the right rabbi: ‘Mission accomplished’
Congregation KTI formally welcomes Rabbi Goldberg with installation ceremony
By Sarah Wolpoff
Thursday, June 13, 2019 3:47 AM
Benjamin Goldberg describes his role as the Congregation KTI rabbi as a symbolic leadership. As the spiritual leader of the synagogue, he aims to embody the community, Judaism, the Torah and God.

Because it’s such a symbolic role, Goldberg said it’s appropriate to have an event where the community acknowledges a new rabbi stepping into the leadership position. Which is exactly what the 575 King St. synagogue did—with open arms.

It’s Jewish tradition for a congregation to officially welcome a spiritual leader with an installation ceremony within a year of the hire. Goldberg, who started his rabbinic career in early July 2018, finally received his own on May 19. The celebration, which serves as an official acceptance into the community, saw nearly 200 spectators comprised of congregants, public officials and Goldberg’s friends and family.

Between endearing remarks from KTI leadership reflecting on the past year, Rabbi Daniel Nevins and Chancellor Arnold Eisen, high-profile figures from Goldberg’s alma mater The Jewish Theological Seminary, shared words of wisdom.

“When choosing a rabbi, a congregation also has to choose a friend. A friend in the sense that a rabbi will share your hearts and world with you, (while) you expect the rabbi to illicit the best in you, to see the best in you, to judge you by your best,” said Chancellor Eisen. “If you have a rabbi being a friend and judging you in the best way, and the congregation is willing to allow the rabbi to call it higher, you have a partnership that brings out the best in both.

“You know and I know you have a really special person here,” he continued, “and he’s told me that he knows by now that he has a special congregation in KTI.”

When the KTI Rabbi Search Committee originated more than a year and half ago, they distributed a survey to the congregation to gauge its collective desired attributes in a leader, Committee Co-Chair Elaine Haber pronounced at the installation. The results cataloged a hefty order.

“The rabbi should be friendly and personable. We need a rabbi who’s good with children and willing to sit on the floor and play. But remember, the Rabbi should also be good with senior citizens and willing to make hospital visits,” Haber comically listed. “We looked at each other and wondered how we’d possibly find anyone to meet all of these qualifications. Honestly, I think we were a little scared. Well, we’re here to day to tell you what everyone already knows: mission accomplished.”

As a rabbi, Goldberg’s philosophies largely revolve around community building across generations. After all, it’s the Jewish community and lifestyle that drew him into the profession.

Born and raised in the outskirts of Philadelphia, he grew up in a religious family that was active in their synagogue. When he spent a summer away at Camp Ramah in the Poconos, his commitment to the way of life solidified.

“There, I was really exposed to Judaism as this all-compassing way of life that didn’t only affect how we prayed, but how we ate, how we treat one another and how we related to the world around us,” Goldberg reminisced. “I always felt very at home in Jewish settings. There was this sense of community and approach to living that I found very compelling; it touched me deeply.”

As an undergrad at Northwestern University, Goldberg said he came to the revelation that he wanted to dedicate his career to helping others feel the same way. So, after spending a year in Jerusalem, independently studying at the Conservative Yeshiva, he returned to the U.S. and started a five-year program at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.

There, his work experiences varied—from the synagogues, to college campuses, to hospitals and a Jewish social justice organization. When it came time to look into jobs upon graduation, he went into the search with two priorities: working with people aged across the lifespan and finding a congregation where he could help in different ways every day.

That’s what he found at KTI. It’s an independent congregation rich in history, as opposed to being a satellite of New York City, where he could be the solo rabbi dipping his hands into every faction. That’s because it’s relatively small, serving roughly 185 families; and unlike many other congregations, there’s vast generational span.

Goldberg loves that he can play a role in the lives of developing toddlers and the comfort of the elderly all in the same day.

In a competitive job market, Goldberg also said the position seemed perfect because it worked geographically well for both him and his husband, Daniel. He had almost given up on finding a position in the New York area, even though that’s what both of them wanted.

“My brother and his family actually live in Mamaroneck, and I was excited about being here and being in the New York region.” Goldberg said. “Then we knew it was fate, to the extent that you can believe in that, when we realized that Port Chester is to the mile halfway between where my husband’s parents live and where my parents live. It was clearly meant to be.”

Goldberg said he’s dedicated his first year to establishing a reliable routine and a strong connection with the congregants. He wants KTI members to feel he is consistently there for them.

Every Thursday from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m., they know he’s at the Rye Ridge Starbucks, in case they want to stop by. For every member whose birthday is registered in the database, he gives them a call to wish them well on their special day.

“With our intimate size and deep roots, we have the potential to be the ‘Cheers’ synagogue—the place where everybody knows your name and they’re always glad you came,” Goldberg said during his acceptance speech at the installation. “With this focus on relationship, on knowing and loving each other and committing to grow together, we can continue to evolve, as we have for the last 130 years, into a relationship-driven sacred community that meets the needs and aspiration of today’s Jews.”

Emphasizing the strength of relationships is critical, Goldberg explained, because nowadays the emotional appeal of community is at the forefront. Technology has a dual effect of being isolating while making knowledge acquisition less personal. Therefore, cherished relationships are the true advantage of being involved in a community.

“I’ve been enlightened by his teachings, entertained by his wit and impressed by his beautiful voice,” said Installation Co-Chair Fran Miller at the ceremony. “In a relatively short time, he has brought his youthful energy and spirit to invigorate our congregation. KTI truly has a bright future.”

Goldberg is young, a millennial at 29 years old. Therefore, as he moves forward with Congregation KTI he wants to focus on the its strengths as they determine which direction to take the synagogue, while simultaneously developing his own rabbinic career.

While his philosophies are ever-developing, so far, he said there have been a few common themes.

He often speaks about integrity, the importance of being true to oneself and expressing appreciation for the small things. He talks about the value of learning, personal growth and continuing to actively explore what Judaism has to offer. His vision for the future involves motivating congregants to put in the effort to be forever learners who feel an endearing obligation to the community.

“The opportunities are there and can be found with a little persistence and effort. I am eager to be your guide,” Goldberg said at the installation. “I know there are lots of demands on your time and attention. But, as I often say, just like anything else worthwhile, there are no shortcuts. You will get as much out of your Jewish life as you put into it.”

Goldberg said he’s been satisfied with his first year as the KTI rabbi. And, after the installation, he’s assured that the feeling is mutual. With the radiation of positivity, Goldberg said he felt different after the celebration. He woke up the next morning feeling a newfound vigor to embark on his mission and move the congregation forward.