After 35 years as religious leader of Shir Ami, a Reform congregation in Newtown, Rabbi Elliot Strom is about to write a new chapter in his life — or, he hopes, many new chapters.
Come June, the 63-year-old Strom — the only rabbi the synagogue has ever known — will assume the mantle of rabbi emeritus. He is scaling back his rabbinic activities, in part, to concentrate on writing fiction.
He is aiming to complete a novel, on which he has labored for 12 years. The work, about the trials of a congregational rabbi, is tentatively titled Rabbi, Run, evoking the John Updike classic, Rabbit, Run.
“I love my job. I have always loved my job. I can’t imagine doing anything else,” Strom said during a recent interview in his spacious office, where a huge guitar case sat by his chair.
“But the job is the proverbial 24/7 job. And over time, there was a sense for me of, ‘What am I not getting to in my personal life, my family life, my other interests — all those things that would often take a back seat to my synagogue demands?’ ”
Retirement in his early 60s may be seen “on the early end of these things,” he acknowledged. “But it seems to me, it is still somewhere on the curve.”
As rabbi emeritus, he’ll still be teaching at the synagogue and conducting life-cycle events. At the same time, he and his wife of 42 years, Susan, plan to spend more time at Shaaray Tefila on Manhattan’s Upper East Side where Joshua, the youngest of his two sons, is the associate rabbi.
Shir Ami is planning to bring in an interim rabbi for a year while the board conducts a search for a new religious leader.
Still, several congregants and colleagues said they can’t imagine the Bucks County congregation without Strom.
“Everybody knew that at some point this was going to happen,” said Cantor Mark Elson, who has served alongside Strom for the past 29 years. “It will be a difficult transition — no doubt about it. He has been the face and voice of Shir Ami for 35 years, but we will go on and find our way.”
For his part, Strom said he is stepping back with an enormous sense of accomplishment for having helped grow a start-up synagogue into the largest congregation in Bucks County. At the same time, he’s leaving with a sense of deep concern about the future of non-Orthodox Judaism and the rabbinic profession.
“Is there going to be a critical mass of non-Orthodox Jews who care about their Judaism to make it a priority? I know the Orthodox will be there. Will liberal Jews be there?” he asked rhetorically. “All the talk is, we need a new model, that the old synagogue probably won’t work — but I don’t think anybody knows what that model is.”
The congregation was established at a 1976 meeting in a founder’s home. Some of those at the meeting wanted a Conservative congregation and ended up starting Ohev Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in nearby Richboro. A dozen years ago, the congregations jointly celebrated their 25th anniversaries.
Strom, a Toronto native, came to the Philadelphia area at the age of 28, after two years as an associate rabbi in northern New Jersey. When he arrived, the congregation of about 75 families owned a piece of land on Richboro Road but had no building. They met nearby at the George School, a Quaker institution.
But Jews began flocking to the Newtown area in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Within two years of Strom’s arrival, the congregation boasted some 300 families.
“It was such an exciting time Jewishly,” he recalled. “This became where so many of the young Jewish families were going. It just boomed. They were beating down the doors to get in. Our big problem was accommodating everyone and to try and be a welcoming place — when we were just overwhelmed.”
Strom recalled that in keeping with trends toward more Hebrew and more traditional prayers that were being introduced at Reform congregations, he pushed hard for the incorporation of elements of tradition — such as the wearing of tallit during services — that earlier generations of Reform Jews had jettisoned.
“We were reclaiming tradition with a liberal approach,” Strom said.
For years, the synagogue had a recipe for growth. Shir Ami’s sprawling home was constructed in three stages. The last phase, finished in 2000, included a mikvah, one of fewer than a handful of Reform congregations in the country to have a mikvah on site. It’s one of only two mikvahs in the region not under Orthodox auspices.
At its height, at the turn of the new millennium, the congregation boasted more than 900 families. But the numbers began to drop off, particularly after the 2008 financial meltdown. Three years ago, the synagogue merged with Temple Shalom of Levittown and gained 65 to 70 families, bringing the total to roughly 820.
Over the decades, Strom said, he has done some serious soul searching.
Many credit the Reform movement’s relatively open approach to intermarriage with helping it surge past the Conservative movement, at least in terms of numbers. For most of his career, Strom refused to officiate at interfaith marriages, but he reversed course just a few years ago. He said in the interview that he regretted not changing his stance earlier.
Strom said his rabbinate was also deeply affected by the discovery 23 years ago of a benign brain tumor that would have been fatal if left untreated. The ordeal not only led him to consider his own mortality, but gave him a new perspective on what it is like to be a patient in need of comforting words.
“It was me going to the hospital to bring some comfort. I was always from the outside looking in,” he said. “For the first time, I knew what it was like to be the person in the bed.”
One thing he learned is that someone who’s exhausted or in pain might appreciate the gesture of a visit, but not necessarily a long discourse.
The fact that Joshua Strom, 33, entered the rabbinate may say a lot about his father’s success and passion for Judaism.
“Clergy children tend to go one of two ways: follow in the footsteps or run from it like you are avoiding the plague,” his son said. “The fact that I saw what a tremendous influence he had and continues to have on people’s lives” was the “primary inspiration for everything I do.”
The elder Strom said he’s looking forward to spending more time with family, finishing his first book and starting a sequel.
“I’m not in this for any kind of income,” he said of his writing. “I’m in this for the joy of having a completed project.”