Rabbis, Congregations Customize Emeritus Role

Rabbis, Congregations Customize Emeritus Role

What are the actual duties of a rabbi emeritus and what is their proper role in a congregation?

David R. Cohen

David R. Cohen is the former Associate Editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times. He is originally from Marietta, GA and studied Journalism at the University of Tennessee.

Rabbi Shalom Lewis
Rabbi Shalom Lewis

At Congregation Etz Chaim in East Cobb, a change is underway.

Rabbi Daniel Dorsch began his tenure at the Conservative synagogue in July and will eventually take over for Rabbi Shalom Lewis, who has served as senior rabbi since the founding of the congregation in 1975.

Rabbi Lewis will move to an emeritus role at a date to be determined.

Rabbi Shalom Lewis says that as he and other traditional rabbis retire, the next generation will have the opportunity to chart a new way forward.
Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim

“Rabbi Dorsch is here to carry the torch forward, and I am stepping back over the next couple of years,” Rabbi Lewis said. “I’m not moving away. I care deeply for this congregation and will serve, regardless of my official title as a rabbi, and keep Etz Chaim a place of Torah, a place of learning, a place of inspiration, and work with Rabbi Dorsch in that capacity.”

He added, “Emeritus and retirement are not synonyms.”

But the actual duties of a rabbi emeritus vary with the people who hold the title and the congregations they serve. Look around Atlanta, and you’ll find different interpretations of the role. Some rabbis move away, some step back, and some remain active at their congregations.

After helping found Temple Beth Tikvah in 1987 and serving as the senior rabbi until 2004, Rabbi Donald Tam remains active as the Reform congregation’s rabbi emeritus. He teaches and provides spiritual guidance for the Roswell synagogue alongside Senior Rabbi Alexandria Shuval-Weiner.

“Being an emeritus is to be present and supportive of the new rabbi and the congregation,” Rabbi Tam said. “Whatever they do, it’s with the approval of the new senior rabbi. The best thing to do is stay out of the senior rabbi’s way. It’s not always an easy thing to do, but it’s the right thing to do.”

At Temple Sinai, Rabbi Philip Kranz, who served as the senior rabbi from 1980 to 2006, has interpreted his role as rabbi emeritus in much the same way. He continues to live here and remains active with the Reform congregation in Sandy Springs in a mostly teaching and writing role.

Rabbi Alvin Sugarman transitioned to an emeritus role at The Temple in 2004 after serving as senior rabbi since 1974. Over the next few years, Sugarman took the pulpit for stints as the interim Rabbi at Congregation B’nai B’rith in Santa Barbara, California and Temple B’nai Israel in Florence, South Carolina. Upon returning to Atlanta, he served on various regional and national boards, including time logged as the president of the Atlanta Rabbinical Association and national Treasurer of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. Sugarman has also stayed active in the Genesis shelter, a non-profit homeless shelter for newborns he helped start in 1994.

Rabbi Daniel Dorsch of Etz Chaim
Rabbi Daniel Dorsch of Etz Chaim

Other rabbis have used the emeritus designation as a way to maintain a connection while moving away and letting a new senior rabbi make the congregation his or her own.

After serving as the senior rabbi of Ahavath Achim Synagogue from 1982 to 2002, Rabbi Arnold Goodman moved to Jerusalem, where in his emeritus role he continues to study and write. He has a weekend as scholar in residence at the Buckhead Conservative congregation each year.

In the same vein, Congregation Beth Jacob’s Rabbi Emanuel Feldman and Temple Emanu-El’s Rabbi Stanley Davids have split time between Israel and the United States since they transitioned to emeritus status in 1991 and 2004, respectively.

Rabbi Davids saw the transition as a time to realize his dream of becoming a citizen of Israel. He and his wife, Resa, made aliyah in 2004 and lived in Jerusalem until 2014, when they moved to Santa Monica, Calif., to be closer to family.

Rabbi Davids returns once a year to speak and study at the Reform congregation in Sandy Springs and to reconnect with old friends. He maintains strong connections with his former congregants.

“One of the most difficult things for an emeritus to confront is when they see the congregation that he or she built is declining,” Rabbi Davids said. “People sometimes don’t understand the emotional investment that the rabbi emeritus has in the future success of the congregation. I have known colleagues who have suffered as they watched parts of their life work dissipate. I’m very fortunate that Rabbi Spike Anderson is fabulous, and Emanu-El is flourishing mightily. But the emotional attachment doesn’t go away when a rabbi retires.”

In its Code of Ethics for Rabbis, the Central Conference of American Rabbis states that because emotional ties between rabbi and congregation strengthen with time and continue beyond retirement, “each congregation requires a single rabbi who has the responsibility of guiding it.”

Rabbi Melvin Sirner
Rabbi Melvin Sirner

At Etz Chaim, Rabbi Dorsch performed his first bar mitzvah ceremony Aug. 6. He came to Atlanta after serving as an assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, N.J., and knows he has a big act to follow in Rabbi Lewis. Thus far, he said, the switch has gone smoothly.

“Rabbi Lewis told me that the role of an emeritus is to be the proud zaide, smiling from the back of the congregation,” Rabbi Dorsch said. “So far, it’s been a very natural transition. Rabbi Lewis sees it as his primary mission to make sure that I succeed. It’s part of his legacy, and he’s been doing a fabulous job helping me integrate into the community.”

Rabbi Melvin Sirner knows what Rabbi Lewis has ahead of him.

Rabbi Sirner came to Atlanta last year to serve as Congregation Shearith Israel’s interim rabbi. But he also is rabbi emeritus at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle, N.Y., where he spent his entire career before Atlanta, including serving as senior rabbi from 1976 to 2015.

Rabbi Sirner said the transition to an emeritus title involves mutual respect, taking a step back and giving up control.

“I think emeritus can mean a lot of things,” he said. “Those of us who are emeritus held the senior rabbi position for many years. But when we’re not the senior rabbi anymore, it involves a measure of letting go. I think a successful transition requires the respect, cooperation and mutual regard of the rabbi emeritus and the new rabbi.”


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