Hiring a rabbi with the intent of letting him go after three years is not a common practice — neither is hosting a celebratory meal in his honor. But Moses Montefiore Anshe Emunah is doing both. The synagogue will host a brunch for Associate Rabbi Joel Dinin on July 9 at 10 a.m. In approximately one year, he will not be working there.
But his short tenure is by design. Dinin is part of the synagogue’s ongoing rabbinical residency program. Devised by Rabbi Yerachmiel Shapiro and the synagogue’s board, the residency is designed to give rabbis-to-be a chance to get experience without the pressures of running their own shul. The program is the first of its kind in the Baltimore area, according to the synagogue, though some organizations around the country have a similar residency.
Neophyte rabbis often funnel straight into their own synagogues from yeshiva. While formal training is required, rabbinical education does not teach interpersonal skills, which are indispensable for a spiritual and community leader, Shapiro said. One of the program’s goals is to give new rabbis the confidence they need to take command of their own synagogues as reliable and supportive religious figures.
“The rabbinate isn’t really about what you learned in the yeshiva as much as what you see in front of you,” Shapiro said. “What you might have thought you were going to say back in yeshiva may be different when a person who is suffering is right in front of you.”
Taking on a resident rabbi has helped the shul, which has nearly doubled to 400 families over the past seven years, but management of the synagogue’s day-to-day activities was not the only impetus. Though Dinin and the synagogue mutually benefit from the program, Shapiro hopes to use the residency as a way to help the Jewish community at large. As he sees it, the community is rapidly polarizing; Orthodox and non-Orthodox beliefs are diverging.
“What concerns me most is the Jewish people are splitting in two,” Shapiro said. “The Orthodox are going one direction, and the vast majority of Jews who don’t really affiliate are going in the other direction.”
He believes MMAE’s brand of Judaism can help. As a modern Orthodox synagogue, it teaches a more progressive form of Judaism that still adheres to tradition and scriptural teachings. Shapiro said it “bridges the gap” between the two balkanized groups.
“This program is helping create rabbis who can go and be those bridges around the country,” Shapiro said. “And for a long time, these rabbis didn’t exist; they weren’t being produced.”
Shapiro recruited Dinin from his alma mater, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, a modern Orthodox yeshiva in the Riverdale area of the Bronx. At MMAE, Dinin manages youth programs, oversees one-on-one Torah study, occasionally leads the morning prayers and handles other supporting tasks around the shul. Because he is not the head rabbi, he can afford to experiment. That, coupled with Shapiro’s tutelage, has proven invaluable for him, he said.
“In the yeshiva you learn all these skills to just give classes, to give sermons … in a bubble,” Dinin said. “And sometimes [Shapiro] reminds me, ‘Don’t forget, Rabbi Dinin, you’re in the real world.’” Since his arrival, Dinin has organized several programs to engage youth and adults in the Torah. He also manages the synagogue’s summer camp.
These duties have given Dinin the opportunity to learn how to connect with and support the congregation in times of crisis. He also learned to officiate some of the more involved Jewish ceremonies such as funerals, he said.
“If I had gone straight to being a senior rabbi, I don’t know that I would have been as successful,” Dinin said. “This was a very easy transition.”
Jeff Forman, president of the synagogue’s board, said the program was only supposed to last two years, but MMAE asked Dinin to stay one extra year to ensure the programs he leaves will last.
“We really want to make sure these things can carry on, so we asked him to stay another year,” Forman said with a chuckle. “It was actually more for us than him.”
It is, Forman said, a strange feeling to hire a new rabbi only to let him go once he has established himself at the congregation. The brunch was planned to be Dinin’s farewell party — a black-tie event — but after he decided to stay another year, it took on a less formal tone.
Though the program is designed to cultivate new rabbis, many congregants do not want Dinin to leave. Multiple members of the synagogue have approached Forman to ask, “Is there a way we can keep him?”
“The lowlight to the program is the recognition that we’re going to get a great guy if we choose right, and when we do get a great guy, we’re going to have to kick him out of here,” Forman said.
The synagogue plans to continue its residency program after Dinin leaves in July 2018.
For more information or to purchase tickets to the brunch (tickets start at $60), call 410-653-7485.
James Whitlow is an intern at the Baltimore Jewish Times.