Rabbi Stephanie Wolfe, who has served as the spiritual leader and educational director of Beth Samuel Jewish Center in Ambridge since 2008, will be leaving her posts in June 2015 as the congregation re-evaluates its current model in a push to ensure its sustainability into the future.
Wolfe served as the educational director of the congregation for two years prior to her concurrent assumption of rabbinic duties.
“We are going in different directions,” Wolfe said. “The congregation is looking to branch out to a more social/community-center direction, and I’m more interested in focusing on education.”
She said she hopes to teach part time as well as focus on her own education. She lives in Monroeville.
Wolfe, a former teacher at Community Day School, said she was proud of the way Beth Samuel has worked to involve children in its services.
“It’s one of the things we do best out there,” she said. “During our family service, each child is on the bimah at some point. The children are always front and center.”
The unaffiliated congregation of about 70 family units is the only synagogue in Beaver County and as such aims to serve a diverse Jewish population, Wolfe said. Friday night services are in the Reform tradition, while Saturday morning services are more traditionally Conservative.
“We needed to be a synagogue that could serve the whole community,” said Wolfe, who recently has been working for the congregation on a part-time basis.
Wolfe said she has been touched by the warmth of the membership of Beth Samuel.
“The relationships have been really wonderful,” she said. “There are incredibly warm people. One of the advantages of a small congregation is you really get to know people. And the people have been incredibly supportive and appreciative of the work I’ve done.
“I’m trying to support them as they move forward,” she continued. “And they’re trying to support me as I try to figure out what the next step of my life is.”
The congregation will be looking to hire a new part-time spiritual leader, said Lynn Klein, president of Beth Samuel. But rather than convene a search committee, leadership of the congregation plans to form a “transition committee.”
Wolfe stepped up to the plate at Beth Samuel at a time of “great instability” to assume the duties of its spiritual leader, Klein said. “Rabbi Wolfe helped us stay together. We knew that being a pulpit rabbi wasn’t her passion, but she stepped right in and took over for us. It was very stabilizing, and she enabled us to move forward.”
The congregation is well aware of recent trends in declining affiliation among millennials as were highlighted in the 2013 Pew survey, Klein said.
“We’re a small congregation out in the suburbs,” Klein said, “and we are facing similar challenges that other congregations in the Pittsburgh area are facing. But we have a dedicated core of members who are working to enhance our congregation.”
The congregation’s challenges, Klein said, include declining membership and increasing expenses. “It becomes a question of sustainability. The congregation is needing to move in some different directions, so we can stay viable. We will be working on maintaining a Jewish presence in our area.”
The congregation, whose members reside in Sewickley, Moon, Butler and Beaver, is one of three area congregations working with the Agency for Jewish Learning through a Kehillot Kayamot grant that has been providing funding for a leadership consultant, Klein said.
“Folks tend to be less involved Jewishly,” she explained. “But Beth Samuel is working hard to become a touchstone. We consider ourselves a Jewish center; people connect in very different ways.
“We are not looking to decrease our services or our life cycle events,” she continued. “We will still have the traditional elements of a synagogue. But we are also looking to branch out toward the ‘synagogue without walls’ concept. We are looking out to the greater community.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.