He Plans to Take It Slow and Steady at Lower Merion

A handful of Hebrew books sat haphazardly on the mostly empty shelves. No family photos adorned the walls or rested on the desk in Rabbi Avraham Shmidman's new office in Lower Merion Synagogue.

He's got plenty of each to choose from; there just hasn't been much time for office decorating.

On Aug. 6, Shmidman and his family moved to the area from Birmingham, Ala., where he'd spent nearly a decade as religious leader of the state's only Orthodox congregation. Nine days later, he started his new job on the Main Line.

At 36, Shmidman is taking the reins of the 400-member-family congregation. He is also replacing Rabbi Abraham Levene, who led the congregation for 40 years before retiring earlier this summer. The synagogue was founded in 1954.

"Rabbi Levene shepherded the shul with brilliance and helped it grow from a fledgling congregation to a thriving center for Jewish life. I'd like to try and build on that," said Shmidman, who was born in New York City and raised in Montreal.

However, he noted, "I'm first going to take some time to learn about the synagogue and the larger community before I embark on any bold initiatives. I think slow and steady wins this race."

Shmidman, whose father and grandfather were rabbis, explained that he wasn't always set on the profession. While enrolled at Yeshiva University as a political-science major, he hadn't an epiphany about a particular vocation, but simply a realization that becoming a rabbi was the best way to serve the Jewish people.

After ordination at Yeshiva's RIETS Rabbinical Seminary, he moved down south to head up Knesseth Israel Congregation in Alabama. There, he led "a deeply engaged religious community" where his responsibilities included nearly everything related to Jewish observance. That entailed making sure that utensils and even entire facilities were fit for a kosher event, which literally required bringing in the heat.

"My motto was, 'Have blowtorch, will travel,' " he said, referring to the heating process required to make utensils and cookware kosher.

As far as Shmidman knows, he won't need a blowtorch at his new post. Instead, he said that this larger congregation will have him presiding over more life-cycle events than he's done in the past.

The married father of four sons joked that he and the boys "let my wife live in our frat house."

Shmidman also acknowledged that he doesn't really have time for outside hobbies since Torah study, his professional duties and fatherly responsibilities pretty much take up all his time.

He finally revealed that he had a passion for ice-hockey during his teenage years, but didn't pursue the sport seriously because too many games were played on Shabbat.



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