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September 3, 2009
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Jeremy Gerber

He's Big on Journeys, but Now He's All Set on Settling Down

Jeremy Gerber's parents thought it might be fun to move to Sweden for a few years during the 1970s.

They went there on a lark, but something clearly stuck, since Gerber's father has been the cantor at the Great Synagogue of Stockholm for more than three decades now.

Born and raised in Sweden's capital city, the younger Gerber decided to follow in his father's footsteps: He returned to America 10 years ago to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. But now, he's chosen to break with tradition, so to speak, and is set to lead a synagogue that's thousands of miles from home -- Congregation Ohev Shalom in Wallingford.

Prior to coming to the Philadelphia area, Gerber, 29, worked at congregations in Caldwell, N.J., and North Carolina while a JTS student. (His brother is also a rabbi in Gothenburg, Sweden.)

Ohev Shalom will be his first full-time pulpit.

Gerber said that he hoped "to bring a new energy" to the congregation, occasionally offering "discussions instead of sermons" and trying to "empower more people to read Torah, to lead services and to get involved in the congregation to whatever level they're comfortable."

Perhaps thinking both of his path to the rabbinate and of the more than 6,000 miles that separate Sweden from Bucks County, the 29-year-old said that he's big on the idea of "Jewish journeys."

And he hopes to use that as "an important metaphor" as he and his congregants move forward together.

 

Return to the Region Opens Up Any Number of Real Possibilities

He's something of a double threat: Aaron Griver is trained as a cantor, and is also an ordained rabbi. Early in his career, a number of decades ago, the Jerusalem native served the Philadelphia area as a cantor. After departing to serve congregations in Scranton, Pa., and New York, he's returnedto Philly, this time as a rabbi.

Griver, 58, recently joined Temple Beth Ami, a Traditional synagogue in the Northeast, having previously been with the Pellham Parkway Jewish Center in the Bronx and, most recently, the Baldwin Jewish Center in Long Island.

Griver and his wife bought a home in Philadelphia many years ago, but never sold it after he took up his other posts. He always hoped to return, and when a position became available after the death of Rabbi Moshe Goldman, Griver said that he was eager "to be associated with this congregation."

The rabbi pointed out that while the shul is very traditional, he's pretty traditional himself, so he didn't foresee any great shifts in religious practice.

"I don't want to change too much, because they're the kind of congregation that's to my liking," he said.

The only thing he hoped to alter, he noted, was to expand the shul's membership base. Whereas decades ago, the Northeast had almost 20 synagogues, that number has dwindled over time, and he said he hoped to attract many of the unaffiliated from that historically Jewish neighborhood.

"There's a lot of people living here that are not associated with any congregation," he said. "I'd like to approach those unaffiliated people and get them involved with our congregation."

 

Lawyer Limits Travels, Coming Full-Circle to Her Cultural Roots

After nearly two decades of globetrotting as an international lawyer,Annette Koch found herself gravitating more toward Jewish life. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she was raised in Brooklyn's diverse Jewish community, and her increasing attraction to synagogue life led her ultimately to leave the law and enter the rabbinate.

Koch was ordained at Hebrew Union College in New York in 2006, after which she relocated to Lake Oswego, Ore., where she spent three years at Bet Haverim/South Metro Jewish Congregation.

However, when the economy forced that congregation to scale back and switch to a part-time rabbi, Koch headed back east to Bucks County.

Her former congregation, she said, was very diverse, and that's something she's already found very welcoming about her new digs: Temple Shalom in Levittown draws from all elements of the community, she said,"in every possibly way -- from point of view to sexual orientation, ethnic and cultural backgrounds, race, gender and age. And, to a person, they see themselves as family."

While she's planning on continuing many long-standing traditions, she also noted that some level of change is in the cards: The congregation is assessing where they are versus where they'd like to be -- and how best to get there.

Some of those changes, she said, include possibly adopting the new Reform prayerbook, re-evaluating the educational curriculum, and trying to incorporate some Yiddish cultural programming.

"Every community needs to grow and change. It's not a comment on the past; it's about meeting future needs."

 

30-Something Takes the Reins at Bucks County's Oldest Shul

He's one of Bucks County's youngest senior rabbis, but he's found his home at the county's oldest synagogue.

Shalom Plotkin, a 39-year-old Maryland native, has joined Congregation Brothers of Israel in Newtown, taking over the reins from Rabbi Howard Hirsch, who led the 130-year-old congregation for nearly half a century, including during its recent move from its longtime home in Trenton, N.J.

Plotkin has spent the last seven years at Beth El Margate, a Conservative congregation along the Jersey shore, but said he planned to relocate his family just in time for school to start. He and his wife, Lisa, have two daughters, ages 2 and 4, who are slated to attend Abrams Hebrew Academy.

The Newtown synagogue occupies a bucolic space, and the rabbi said that he plans to make use of all that nature.

"We've taken to calling it the little shul on the prairie," he said, adding that it's a far cry from his previous post on the Jersey shore, "where everybody's kind of on top of one another."

Even in his new surroundings, however, he'll be among some familiar faces. Plotkin, who was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, pointed out that some of his congregants from Margate live in Bucks County, but spend their summers down the shore.

He noted that many of the synagogue's families have belonged to the congregation for several generations.

All of that is a large part of what drew him to the rabbinate, he said: "I have a passion for teaching Torah, and I really like to be involved with families."

 

Raised in European Tradition, He Focuses on Community Needs

Dov Halperin was born and raised in Antwerp, Belgium; and when he finally came to the United States 11 years ago, what surprised him the most, he said, was the many divisions within the American Jewish community.

In Europe, he said, "a Jew is a Jew, and some people are more observant and some are less observant, and you don't fix people in a box."

He observed that American Jews tend to fixate on denominational differences, rather than on their many similarities.

Halperin leads Knesset HaSefer, the Educational Synagogue of Yardley, and though he's now the full-time rabbi, prior to this, he'd assisted the shul's previous rabbi, Yitzchok Feldheim.

In his opinion, the biggest hurdle facing Jews today is ignorance of Jewish history.

"We know more about other religions than our own," he lamented, "and I truly believe that Jewish education is the promise for the Jewish community."

The 42-year-old father of six said that his father, who worked in Antwerp's diamond trade, wanted him to follow in the family business. But Halperin said he wanted to make the world a better place, and so put his efforts toward the rabbinate. He was ordained at Beth Medrash Govoha, in Lakewood, N.J., but noted that he still feels connected to the European idea of a rabbi as someone who supports the entire community, not just those who pay synagogue dues.

"A community rabbi should be accessible to people who aren't even members" of the congregation, he said, adding that he views that as a principle responsibility of a religious leader.

These rabbi profiles were written by staff writer Aaron Passman.

 

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