First High Holidays an Opportunity to Connect for New Clergy

Chizuk Amuno

All over the Baltimore area, synagogue staff are preparing for the High Holidays in all the familiar ways — distributing honors, dusting off the machzors and buying bread for Tashlich. But for Chizuk Amuno Congregation’s Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg, just one of many clergy preparing for their first High Holidays with new congregations, this year’s preparation comes with extra meaning.

“Chizuk Amuno is a big synagogue, and even in the course of an interview process and six or seven weeks in the summer, I’ve only met a fraction of the community,” Gruenberg said. “So I really strongly believe that this first High Holidays is a chance to introduce myself to the community, to give them a little bit of a window into what kind of rabbi I am, into what kind of community I want to together create.”

Gruenberg arrived at Chizuk Amuno this summer from Congregation Beth El in Yardley, Pennsylvania, where he’d served as rabbi since 2011. Though these High Holidays won’t be his first rodeo, he says that it’s still a little nerve-wracking.

“I think it would be a little bit crazy not to be nervous,” Gruenberg said. But, he continued, “nerves are a good thing! They remind us that what we’re doing is important.”

Rabbi Marc Disick’s situation is a little bit different. Disick has been serving at Temple Oheb Shalom on an interim basis since the suspension of Rabbi Steven M. Fink for sexual impropriety. “While I will certainly not be preaching on any of the specifics of our situation from our pulpit over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,” Disick said, “the Days of Awe are nonetheless intended to offer moments of intense retrospection, soul-searching and opportunity. Sometimes the Holy Days come early, sometimes they come late. For Temple Oheb Shalom, they are right on time.”

Cantor Ben Ellerin, gearing up for his first High Holidays with Baltimore Hebrew Congregation since arriving from Tarrytown, New York, said he’s approaching the next few weeks with relationships in mind.

“I try to center my work as a cantor and clergyperson around building relationships,” he said. “In this first year with a new community, there are relationships being built on both micro and macro levels. The High Holidays are one of those macro moments and there is a strong element of mutual discovery just as there is on the micro person-to-person level. Who is this person? How do they make me feel? Is this someone I want to connect to?”

Like the other clergy who spoke to the JT, Ellerin stressed the importance of being genuine in forming relationships with his congregation.

“Prayer demands authenticity from a leader and to truly be a ba’al tefillah (prayer leader), to both lead and inspire, I need to be in relationship with my clergy partners and our other musicians,” he said. “Only when we are leading in relationship with one another do I feel that we can truly offer a ‘prayerful’ service and elevate the music beyond mere performance to an experience that is uniquely spiritual.”

Cantor Rebecca Pohl Apt can relate. When it comes to a cantor’s relationship with a congregation, she says striking a balance between new tunes and beloved classics is key. “There are certain prayers and melodies that each synagogue holds dear — melodies that without them it’s ‘not the High Holidays’ for them,” she said. “I want to ensure the best experience for them for my first year so that they feel comfortable and not like there is a stranger taking over their service.”

Pohl Apt took over at Beth Shalom in May for Cantor Richard Walters, who had held the post for 21 years. Echoing Gruenberg’s sentiments, she says she’s a little nervous, too. But she hasn’t let it deter her from her mission.

“The High Holidays are my favorite holidays,” she said. “Not just because the music is beautiful and I get the chance to sing a lot, but because of the message of the season — it is a chance to start fresh, to set a tone for the new year ahead and to revisit what is special in our lives.”

Gruenberg summed up the feelings expressed by his fellow clergy nicely: “I think it’s different than other years in the sense that any time you’re in a community for the first year, it’s a unique opportunity in front of your biggest audience to give them a little bit of a window not only into who you are as a rabbi, but who you are as a human being.”

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