Rabbi John Franken is the new rabbi of Temple Adas Shalom in Harford County.
Franken took on the role in October, replacing Rabbi Gila Ruskin, who retired. He has made it his mission to engage the community with a new vision that involves more interactive programming.
While Temple Adas Shalom may seem small, with a membership of about 150 households, the 65-year-old Reform synagogue plays an important role as the only Reform synagogue in the county of about 250,000 people.
Franken said a strength of the congregation is its particularly engaged youth. This is useful, he said, in combating the challenges that many synagogues face.
“Most of our challenges are the same ones you encounter elsewhere: synagogue membership being viewed increasingly as optional and a value proposition, the cost of membership, growing secularization, and competition for people’s time. Also, because Adas Shalom is located in the outer reaches of the metropolitan area, it sometimes goes overlooked by the Jewish communal infrastructure,” said Franken.
Franken, somewhat of a synagogue upgrader, knows how to fix this. He focuses on engaging youth and creating interactive programming to bring houses of worship back to life. He has experience with this from his time as rabbi of Bolton Street Synagogue, a position that brought him to Baltimore in 2012.
“I do that well in some ways, looking at the youth in a congregation and find a way to realize their highest potential, turn themselves around, and create conditions to thrive,” he said. He had success repeating that model at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase. He then moved to North Carolina until he returned to be the rabbi at Adas Shalom.
“I gravitate toward modes of worship that are interactive, such as discussions and learning sessions in the context of service, sometimes doing creative things on the bimah involving the congregants,” he said. For example, after reading the Book of Genesis, the congregation watched its youth act it out. Franken said this form of Torah learning, called a bibliodrama, was pioneered by scholar and artist Peter Pitzele.
Franken is also developing a plan to step up adults’ engagement in high-level learning, with at least one serious learning option every Shabbat or every Sunday. He also started a meditation group, which attracts about 25 people each session and is often led by the congregants themselves. In addition, he hopes to organize retreats or a trip to Israel.
“I am so glad [Franken] is there,” said Ruskin, who had been with the synagogue from 2007. “I am thrilled. I know he will carry on a lot of the programs and initiatives that I was involved with starting. He will be a great spiritual leader and scholar. I especially feel very positive for the future of the congregation.”
Prior to her position at Adas Shalom, Ruskin worked for Chevrei Tzedek Congregation in Baltimore and taught eighth graders at Krieger Schechter Middle School. She is now retired and living in Philadelphia with her husband to be closer to their children and grandchildren. She said she is sad to have left the congregation, which is “very warm,” but found the commute to Philadelphia ultimately too difficult.
According to Ruskin, Temple Adas Shalom “plays a special role in the community as a kind of beacon for the Jewish religion and Jewish culture.”
The synagogue works with other faith communities. For example, for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Temple Adas Shalom hosted an interfaith ceremony with St. James A.M.E. Church, and Masjid Al Falaah, a mosque in the county.
The county also has another synagogue, Harford Chabad. “We are a family,” Harford Chabad Rabbi Kushi Schusterman said of the two synagogues.
Franken, a member of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis’ executive committee, lives in Tuscany-Canterbury, Baltimore. He studied law but ultimately chose the rabbinate.
“Judaism is an entire civilization; it’s a whole attitude and approach to how to live one’s life in a holy and ethical way that represents a deep belonging to a people and rich and glorious history and destiny,” he said. “It is a pathway to connect with and encounter God and holiness. It’s a prescription and mandate for righteous living and leaving the world somehow better than we found it. For all these reasons, Judaism is a very animating course in my life, and I try to make it that safe and animating force in the lives of others.”
Last week, Franken headed to the Philippines. There, he went to monuments of Jewish soldiers that had been marked with Latin crosses, to remark them with the Star of David instead. Among these are his father’s brother.
“For the last several decades one of the most salient pieces of information — [my uncle’s] Jewishness — was wrong,” he said. “Correcting this is an act of truth and kindness, chesed shel emet, if you will.”