Rabbi John Franken Says Goodbye to Baltimore and Hello to Israel

Rabbi John Franken
Rabbi John Franken (Courtesy of Rabbi John Franken)

For Baltimore Rabbi John Franken, making aliyah is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

“I’ve been emotionally and intellectually in love with the state of Israel and the Zionist project since I was a kid,” said Franken, the immediate past president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.

Franken, 56, started the application for Israeli citizenship in December 2022. Confirmation came on Oct. 15, 2023. He — along with his cat, Ro’ah, Hebrew for “my shepherd” — will land on March 4 and move to Tel Aviv.

His belief in the establishment of a homeland for the Jewish people goes back to when he chose to become a bar mitzvah in Israel. “That was the very beginning of a deep relationship with the land and the state and the people of Israel,” said Franken, who grew up in New Haven, Connecticut.

Franken has served as a rabbi at several congregations in Maryland, most recently at Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace. He has also been the rabbi at Bolton Street Synagogue in Baltimore and an interim rabbi at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.

The role of an interim rabbi is to go into congregations that need stabilization and healing, “and help them find a path forward such that they can thrive into the future,” Franken said.

For the past seven years, Franken has also been the president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis. During his time there, he oversaw the completion of the organization’s transition from professionally staffed to fully volunteer led, and he reinvented and strengthened the Intro to Judaism program. He also led the board through the challenges of the pandemic, as well as through the first few months of the Israel-Hamas war.

Franken received his rabbinical ordination in 2003, from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. While a student there, he split his time between Israel and New York.

When Franken was ordained, he set a goal for himself. “By the time I was around this age I am now, I wanted to have the wherewithal to make aliyah,” he said.

Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7 deepened his commitment to make aliyah. “It brings into very clear relief how important Israel is to the Jewish people, how important its security and survival is,” Franken said.

“The more that are there to contribute to Israel, the greater our security and the greater possibility it’ll be a thriving society for all Jews who choose to live there,” he added. “I want to be a part of that.”

Upon his arrival, Franken plans to follow the advice of friends to “just be kind to yourself and allow yourself to get settled and develop a new life there. It’s a different culture, a different language.”

His Hebrew is fair, he said, and he will take language courses there.

Meanwhile, he has been helping an Ethiopian Jew improve his English online. He is a university student and a captain in the Israel Defense Forces reserves.

Franken expects to volunteer when he is in Israel. “There are lots of Israelis helping to bring in the harvest because of the shortage of agricultural workers during the war,” he noted.

He also plans to engage in activism against the judicial overhaul pursued by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government before the Hamas war erupted. “I feel very strongly about Israel remaining free and democratic with a strong Supreme Court and equality for all Israelis,” he said.

Reform rabbis are in need in Europe, and Franken has also been in discussion with people about serving those synagogues as well. When he was a rabbinical student, he served a congregation in Luxembourg for the High Holidays, he recalled.

“There are a number of Reform and Conservative rabbis who fly out once a month to congregations in Europe,” he said. “I can see myself being a part-time pulpit rabbi.”

He will remain the lead instructor and coordinator for an online course, Intro to Judaism, a Baltimore Board of Rabbis program. He will also continue to work with private students online.

“I view [Israel] as a miracle in our time, an incredible place to be, to live,” Franken said. “It’s the place I feel most alive.”

Correction 3/1/24: This article was updated to correct Franken’s role at Bolton Street Synagogue. He was the settled rabbi there, not the interim rabbi.

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