Helping Congregations Make Courageous Choices

Temple Oheb Shalom interim Rabbi Marc. L. Disick

“It takes courage for congregational leaders to say they want an interim rabbi,” said Rabbi Marc L. Disick, interim rabbi of Temple Oheb Shalom, a historic congregation on Park Heights Avenue in Pikesville. “But this is our opportunity to maybe change the way we do things, and the way we relate and connect to one another at the most sacred and most important levels. And that’s what a good interim, a seasoned interim, can help people do — make some courageous choices and decisions.”

Disick, an interim rabbi trained specifically to deal with congregations in crisis, came to Oheb last spring following the suspension of longtime spiritual leader Rabbi Steven M. Fink. Disick helps guide congregations through a process of healing and learning for themselves how to move forward. A process, Disick said, that mirrors family therapy.

“Our institutions are like families, and sometimes families go through divorces,” Disick said. “And we don’t walk away from our friends when they’re going through something hard. We help them walk through it. As hard as it might be, we don’t walk away.”

Disick, along with Rabbi Sarah Marion and Rabbi Emeritus Donald R. Berlin make up the spiritual leadership at the congregation, which faced a crisis last May when Fink was suspended following an allegation of sexual impropriety with a minor teen a number of years ago. He was subsequently expelled from the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the Reform Rabbinic leadership organization, and his contract with the temple was terminated.

Disick was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in a Reform household in West Hempstead, Long Island. But after his parents divorced, his Methodist stepmother urged his father to send him to a shul to study for his bar mitzvah. From age 11 to 20 he attended a Lubavitch center.

“Lubavitch really taught me a lot about what it is to welcome people into your synagogue,” Disick said.

He received his undergraduate degree in Judaic studies and classical rhetoric at Albany State, lived in Israel and went on to a master’s at NYU in Jewish education, ultimately attending Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He was ordained in 1986.

Judaic studies was always an interest, but what really sparked serious study was watching his stepmother’s conversion to Judaism.

“When the rabbi handed her the Torah they were both smiling,” he recalled. “And I wanted that. I was a sophomore in college, it was 1978 and I have not looked back.”

Temple Oheb Shalom’s sanctuary.

His career path leading to his decision to work as an interim rabbi included working as a regional director for the Reform Jewish movement, covering 58 congregations in New Jersey and the West Hudson Valley.

Our institutions are like families, and sometimes families go through divorces,” Disick said. “And we don’t walk away from our friends when they’re going through something hard. — Rabbi Marc L. Disick

It was during that time, in the 1980s, that Disick began attending seminars with the late Edwin H. Friedman, a rabbi, family therapist, author and founder of Bethesda Jewish Congregation. Friedman is known for his influential book, “Generation to Generation,” that instructed congregational religious leaders to lead more effectively by being self-differentiated, non-anxious and present with those one is leading. Self-knowledge and self-control is key. He used a family therapy approach for congregations in crisis.

“Friedman helped leaders focus on relationships as opposed to individuals as the source of problems,” Disick said.

After serving congregations in a number of states, Disick ultimately decided his strength was as an interim rabbi.

“I help people look at what they may not want to look at. Denial is very powerful,” he said. “A rabbi is in such a supreme position of trust and this person is the keeper of their sacred treasures of memory. Sad and tragic, and joyful. It’s very hard for people to integrate the fact that someone they love could hurt their house.”

But Disick said pain makes people receptive to change. “I’m here to ensure a healthy process. And the process here was healthy.”

Disick gives Oheb immediate past-president Mina Wender credit for handling the process during the congregation’s crisis in a healthy way by bringing in an organizational mental health professional.

Disick’s office includes a portrait of Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. Spock’s “Live Long and Prosper” motto and its hand gesture were drawn from Nimoy’s Judaism.

“She said, ‘We need help, and we can do better,’” Disick recalled. “And there are few things that threaten an unhealthy system, more than a good mental health professional. And that really began to jostle things up.”

Wender said Disick offered “wise counsel in a time of crisis.”

“The most important thing he did was to reach out to the congregants through a series a small group meetings as well as individual meetings,” she said. “His presence has helped to uplift the congregation in many ways. Services have been warm and friendly. He has helped our board to focus and set goals and direction.”

A congregation needs to look honestly at itself, Disick added, to move forward and have an honest relationship with the next settled rabbi.

“When a congregation can portray legitimate, heartfelt self-awareness of the strengths that they’ve come to discover, and their own weaknesses that they still have to work on — now, that’s an interesting relationship.”

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