Have a chat with Rabbi David Katz and it becomes clear pretty quickly why the Rochester, New York, native has turned his rabbinical knowledge and skills toward helping guide congregations in transition as an interim rabbi. Even over the phone, Katz exudes warmth, humor, energy and candor – traits that prove necessary for successful interim clergy.
The members of Har Sinai Congregation’s rabbi search committee, busy over the last several months searching for an interim, recently made it official with a May 19 vote to bring Katz to the Owings Mills Reform congregation beginning July 1.
Finishing up his current interim position at Temple B’Nai Or, in Morristown, New Jersey, Katz said he is looking forward “to leading Har Sinai, helping to lead both congregations into the future with my colleague Rabbi Disick.”
Katz and Rabbi Marc L. Disick, interim rabbi at Temple Oheb Shalom, will become fast colleagues as they work with the congregations during a proposed merger process.
Current plans call for both organizations to perform their due legal and organizational diligence this summer, in preparation for a congregational vote on the merger in September of 2019. Both rabbis are slated to stay until a projected date of summer 2020, when a new, permanent rabbi is proposed to be in place to head the newly merged congregation.
Katz is looking forward to the challenge and is excited about working with Disick as the two help build and solidify the bridges between the two historic congregations. Since 2011, Katz has performed interim rabbi duties at six congregations, including in California, Pennsylvania, New York, Georgia and most recently in New Jersey.
Prior to that, Katz worked as a Jewish educator and scholar in residence. He spent 16 years as spiritual leader of Temple Israel Reform Congregation of Staten Island, New York, where he led interfaith efforts in the community.
But being a rabbi wasn’t always in his stars. Even as a youngster, Katz was interested in acting and began taking acting lessons when he was seven. That interest continued through a master’s in theater at Northwestern University and a number of theater companies.
Growing up in Rochester, the family attended Temple B’rith Kodesh and Katz went to public schools along with Hebrew school, where he began his love of the Hebrew language. In college, as an undergrad and grad student, he studied theater and his interest in acting morphed into a talent for directing, some drama, but mostly comedies.
“I have a deep interest in laughter and humor — why people laugh,” Katz said. “Humor is an important part of our lives. I would say joy is something of a human experience and a religious theme.”
From directing comedies and studying the arts and literature, Katz moved on to Hebrew Union College (HUC), earning both an MA in Hebrew Letters in 1978 and a year later another MA in Hebrew Education.
“There are certain connections to be sure. Theater is an art that is about life and about people, and about studying a script and finding what’s underneath it and the motivations of characters,” he said. “That’s an easy transition to interpreting text and trying to understand people and having a message to communicate.”
His penchant for teaching started when he was a teen, when he and a high school friend taught a post-confirmation class. Katz was ordained in 1981 at HUC, earned his Reform Jewish Educator title in 1986 and his Doctor of Divinity in 2006. In 2012 he received his interim ministry certification.
“I have been a Jewish educator in many ways,” Katz said. “Whenever teaching is there, my heart is there.”
Coming into his seventh position leading a congregation as an interim rabbi, Katz finds the work “very rewarding.”
“I have an analytical nature, and it is often [like] the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle,” Katz said. “Where you can help a congregation through whatever transition it’s experiencing. It’s appealing to be able to be honest … and to be of real help.”
Katz is looking forward to his move to Baltimore, which he said is known for its “tight-knit” Jewish community with a “strong identity.” He was impressed with the Har Sinai leadership and congregants he met during his interview process.
“I believe that the people who I was speaking to and those who were interviewing me, were people of quality, who were intelligent, sincere and devoted. And that’s always a good foundation when you walk into a community and you have people who want everything to succeed; they want the synagogue to succeed, and they want the rabbi to succeed,” Katz said. “So that’s the beginning foundation: that there was honesty, straightforwardness and concern for the welfare of the community.”
“I told the [search] committee I appreciate the challenges, and there will be challenges in the coming year because merging is like getting married. You learn about your partner and you grow close and then you become united,” he added. “That will be complicated and exciting and I look forward to the success that I know will come.”
Katz is married to painter and ceramic artist Nancy Katz and the couple have two children.