Bridges, tunnels and construction may be a source of consternation for many Pittsburgh commuters, but Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is content with his particular journey.
Goodman, who recently became part-time spiritual leader of Brith Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in Erie, resides in Squirrel Hill and travels about two hours by car to reach his employer. But don’t tell the former Denver resident it is a schlep. His last job required navigating two 11,000-foot mountain passes and sometimes took as many as five hours each way, given the season.
“One of my great rabbinic skills is to drive in any condition,” remarked Goodman.
Such commitment is critical to Jewish life in smaller towns, explained the rabbi. And Brith Sholom, like many rust belt religious centers, is a congregation in decline. Whereas the synagogue used to be housed in a giant building, serve somewhere between 500 and 600 families, and employ an entire staff, “today, it’s pretty much just me,” said Goodman, who completed his first High Holidays at the shul’s helm weeks ago.
Yom Kippur services were held in a “cavernous” chapel inside a building that the congregation previously owned, but now rents. About 40 people were present, he said.
The reality of leading a community where growth is unexpected and cessation is a valid topic of conversation is “kind of bittersweet,” he said. “They’re really small and really committed.” However, “at some point they may not have enough people to go on. This is not a new thing — every small congregation in Western Pennsylvania and Ohio is going through this.”
Planning for the future while dealing with migration is part and parcel of Goodman’s experience.
By his own description, he arrived in the Steel City as “a trailing spouse.”
Goodman’s wife, Noa, is completing an internship and plans on applying for a residency at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center in physical therapy. Approximately five years before that, “we moved to Denver for my job,” so coming to Pittsburgh is “an extension of our values,” he said.
As a rabbi, most people assume you live somewhere because of your job, but this “is a little bit what it’s like to be a rabbi in the modern world,” added Goodman. “The gender roles are supposed to be equally balanced.”
Throughout his rabbinic career, Goodman has worked to improve relationships. As a student at the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, the Conservative movement’s seminary on the West Coast, Goodman interned with Clergy and Laity United for Economic justice and co-founded Dror Yikra, the Ziegler School’s LGBT advocacy group. Between 2004 and 2006, he was founding spiritual leader of the Surf City Synagogue in Huntington Beach, Calif., and after receiving ordination in 2006, he taught Talmud and Jewish law at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco. In 2012, Goodman headed to Colorado, where until 2017 he served as school rabbi and director of Judaic studies at Denver Jewish Day School. Among his many roles in the region, Goodman also served as rabbi of Congregation Har Mishpacha in Steamboat Springs, Colo., until this past June.
Since arriving in the Steel City, Goodman, an avid follower of the Colorado Rapids Major League Soccer team, has taken to his surroundings. As the rabbi of Brith Sholom, he typically spends one Shabbat a month in Erie. It may be a part-time position, but Goodman remains committed.
“I serve the Jews in front of me and became a rabbi because I was called by God to do the work. The work doesn’t change whether there are 10 people or 1,000 people in front of you,” he said.
“I have to be motivated to do the best I can because that’s what I believe. I care about being a good rabbi.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.