Rabbi Amy Levin was not entirely sure what her time as an interim rabbi would look like when she arrived at Beth Shalom last summer for a one-year stint to help the Conservative congregation through a period of transition following the departure of Rabbi Michael Werbow.
Levin had just concluded 10 years as the spiritual leader of Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich, R.I., and never before had worked as an interim rabbi, although she completed a consulting course offered by the Alban Institute to train clergy members to do just that.
As it turned out, she said, the experience at Beth Shalom was so rewarding that she now is headed to Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport, Conn., to do it again.
“I didn’t know what to expect, because I had not done this before,” Levin said. “But I knew coming in that I wanted to leave the congregation in better shape than when I found it, and with a good rabbi. And I did both things.”
Just last year, Beth Shalom was facing financial challenges, clergy and administration staff vacancies and a clash of personalities among its lay leaders, Howard Valinsky, past president of the congregation, told The Chronicle at the time.
But after 12 months under the guidance of Levin, things are most definitely looking up for the congregation.
“She certainly helped get us over some of the turmoil leading into her arrival,” said current Beth Shalom president David Horvitz.
“There’s a big advantage in bringing in someone with fresh eyes to build on a congregation’s strengths and not be burdened by ‘how we always did things,’” Levin said.
“I make suggestions, but a congregation has to be willing to do the work, and Congregation Beth Shalom is absolutely willing to do the work.”
After Werbow left Beth Shalom, Horvitz said, the congregation was unsure what attributes it wanted in its next permanent rabbi and faced a rash of conflicting opinions.
“Rabbi Levin helped us focus on that,” he said. “And she helped us learn to listen to each other and to the various concerns of our congregants. Not everyone has the same concerns, but [Rabbi Levin’s process] allowed us to step back and take the opportunity to listen to what everyone wants.”
Among other things, Levin created a website that served as a nexus for all information regarding the search and allowed the congregation to submit feedback on each of the three rabbinical candidates who interviewed at Beth Shalom.
“It’s more art than science, but I really think we made a good shidduch here, with Rabbi Seth Adelson,” Levin said. “I’m very excited to have helped bring them together.”
One technique Levin employed to help determine which qualities to seek in a new spiritual leader was to engage the congregation in a series of conversations about their greatest past interactions with rabbis, she said.
“People had amazing stories to tell,” Levin recalled. “One of the things that helped people a lot with the congregational re-grouping was that some of the most amazing stories were about rabbis who had served Beth Shalom in the past.”
When congregants began embracing how much love they had felt from Beth Shalom’s own rabbis, she said, it helped them outline the direction they needed to take to move forward with finding a replacement for Werbow.
Levin also assisted Beth Shalom’s members in identifying elements of “congregational dynamics,” she said, and helped them come to the conclusion that some fundamentals needed to be reviewed, while some new things should be explored.
“There’s lots of history and institutional knowledge, but that’s not necessarily what we are now,” said Horvitz. “The old guard wanted to keep things the same, but some of the new members think that we have to change. Rabbi Levin helped both sides listen to each other.
“The old guard can now see the young families’ needs, and the young can see the older families’ needs,” he said.
While Levin embraced her conventional rabbinic duties such as leading services and officiating at life cycle events during her short tenure at Beth Shalom, she is particularly satisfied with the work she did in helping the various elements of the congregation determine its direction for the future.
“I have found this to be one of the very gratifying things about this position, to help the congregation move forward in a more positive way, to make sure that my colleague succeeds,” Levin said.
She is confident, she said, that she is leaving Beth Shalom in the hands of competent lay leaders, ready to work collaboratively with Adelson.
“We’ve put together a team of lay leaders for the congregation that is exceptionally strong, collaborative and intelligent — a dream team,” she said.
Levin also took on an administrative role while at Beth Shalom, helping the congregation through its search for a new executive director; Robert Menes was hired for that position just last week. The congregation also has a new communications and program support specialist, Jen Schuchman, and is poised to hire a new youth director, according to Horvitz.
“Our administrative staff is back on track,” he said. “And with our new rabbi, we are moving forward with real direction.”
Membership at Beth Shalom has been “fairly stable” at about 600 families, despite its recent upheaval, according to Horvitz. While the congregation has lost some members, he said, it is now “getting a lot of interest from people wanting to check us out again.”
Levin helped guide Beth Shalom on its membership issues, she said, by emphasizing, “It’s about people walking into the building and feeling really happy about their experiences and then telling their friends.”
In the midst of being infused with a new energy, Beth Shalom, the largest Conservative congregation in the Pittsburgh area, soon will be getting ready to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2017.
“The timing is wonderful,” noted Levin, who suggested getting a committee together to start planning the festivities. “Rabbi Adelson is coming in now, and by the time of the 100th anniversary, people will know him. It’s perfect timing.”
The life of an interim rabbi, Levin has found, has its plusses and minuses.
“The downside is I’m like a nomad,” she said. “But on the other hand, every time I move I get rid of more stuff.
“It’s hard because I’m not settled; I don’t have a home,” she shared as she took a break from packing up her things for her move to Connecticut. “That’s the only downside. But it’s very engaging and challenging. It’s a gratifying role, this interim role. This sense of leaving a congregation in better shape than I found it is tremendous.”
“I feel so good about this year,” Levin added. “But this is a hard place to leave. It’s harder to leave than I expected.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.