The Jewish New Year is fast approaching, and with the new year comes three new rabbis to Baltimore-area synagogues. Beth Am Synagogue, Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation and Columbia Jewish Congregation all welcomed rabbis to new roles this summer.
Rabbi Tyler Dratch of Beth Am Synagogue
Rabbi Tyler Dratch, Beth Am’s rabbi for tefilah leadership and director of youth & family education, began his position in early July and has enjoyed the opportunities he has had to meet with the members of his new synagogue.
“[I have] been getting to hear people’s stories and what brings them to be a part of the Beth Am community,” Dratch said. “And … not only has [that] been really joyful, but it’s also helped me really understand who Beth Am is, what the community is.”
Dratch has found Beth Am’s community to be a particularly welcoming one, he said, and very willing to share their stories and passions when it comes to Baltimore and Jewish life. One member of Beth Am introduced him to a melody that was unique to the shul and has been sung at the synagogue for decades. As for Beth Am’s youth, whom Dratch spends much of his time working with, he has found them to be a very curious bunch. One child, for example, asked him why Shabbat takes place on Fridays and Saturdays, as opposed to some other day of the week.
During Beth Am’s High Holiday services, Dratch expects to lead the singing of the Kol Nidrei prayer, along with the Torah service and some of the cantorial sections, he said. He has been working with lay leaders on their parts of the services.
This year, Beth Am plans to have both in-person and streaming options for its High Holiday services, with in-person services limited to 50% capacity. While the situation is fluid, currently the synagogue plans to require in-person attendees to be masked and vaccinated if they are eligible for the vaccine. The shul has been working to ensure that, in either format, attendees will feel spiritually connected to the liturgy and the community.
The pandemic has taught people that Jewish community and togetherness are essential, Dratch said. He is grateful to everyone who has done their part to help everyone stay safe.
“This is the nature of spiritual community,” Dratch said. “The form of our community will continue to change based on COVID or other things that happen in the world, but what will never change is that we’ll never stop being together, and never stop caring about each other.”
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi of Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation
Having received her rabbinical ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and her Ph.D. from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi began her position as Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation’s inaugural senior rabbi on July 1.
“I am starting to settle in but of course I have so much more to learn,” Sabath said in an email. “Each congregant I meet [is] a whole New World. I am learning from each person as much as I can about their dreams and hopes for the future. It has been an incredibly exciting time.”
The fact that Sabath is leading a congregation with a rather lengthy history has not been lost on her, she said, noting the importance of learning from 19th-century rabbis such as Rabbi David Einhorn of Har Sinai Congregation and Rabbi Benjamin Szold of Temple Oheb Shalom. That being said, Sabath has been keeping an eye on the future as well.
“Folks here feel so excited and optimistic about the [future] and all the positive energy flowing,” said Sabath. “It is an incredibly unusual — even once-in-a-lifetime opportunity — to lead a congregation so old and yet so new.
“The possibilities are endless,” Sabath continued. “And we are ready to evolve and meet the needs of a changing Baltimore
Sabath compared the experience of leading her synagogue in the present climate to “riding a roller coaster” and said she has learned how important it is for today’s leaders and rabbis to be adaptable to change. Maintaining a mindset of adaptive change has helped ensure that her decision making remains inclusive, sensitive and optimistic, she said.
Sabath also gave a sneak peek as to what congregants can expect from her Rosh Hashanah sermon.
“Authenticity. Wisdom. Humor,” Sabath said. “An open [invitation] to challenge ourselves to create a new kind of community. We always have choices but I’ll be inviting our community to make particular choices as we move into 5782. We will be building anew, based on our shared values, and always forward facing. We are definitely building for tomorrow.”
Rabbi Michael Hess Webber of Columbia Jewish Congregation
Rabbi Michael Hess Webber first came to CJC in the fall of 2020 as the congregation’s rabbinic intern, she said. After being ordained in May, she became CJC’s rabbi on July 1, following the departure of Rabbi Sonya Starr.
“I am so proud and honored to call CJC my first official rabbinic pulpit,” Hess Webber said in an email.
She spent five years in rabbinical school and has worked in the Jewish world, but nothing can truly prepare someone for the role, she said.
“It is a really special job — a big job with a lot of responsibility and also a ton of love and joy and connection,” Hess Webber said. “I try, [every day], to stay open to each new experience as it comes — open to the challenges and to the learning that those experiences and challenges bring.”
As she started at CJC during the pandemic and its social distancing measures, Hess Webber did not at first have many opportunities to meet CJC congregants face to face. She was happy to report, however, that the situation has slowly been changing. She recently participated in her first in-person Shabbat service as rabbi.
“We walked along the bike trail in Oakland Mills and prayed together amongst the trees and birds (and mosquitoes),” she said.
“It was a very sacred experience to hear so many voices pray together,” Hess Webber continued. “To be sure, the distance of the past year and a half has really helped us appreciate togetherness in a new way.”
Hess Webber has found starting a job as a new rabbi during the pandemic just a few months before the High Holidays to be a bit of a “crazy” experience. She is grateful for the support she has received from CJC’s co-planners working alongside her and expressed confidence that the congregation’s High Holiday celebrations will be both meaningful and heartfelt.
For members of the community who have become tired of social distancing or mask requirements, Hess Webber noted that humans were never meant to be alone. She isn’t surprised that many are eager for the chance to be physically together again.
“I am a rabbi, and so when life is hard, I lean in to our tradition for guidance and stabilization,” Hess Webber said. “Judaism asks something of us that is pretty countercultural to the individualistic American way of life — to consider how we, our actions and choices, impact the whole.
“Judaism is a system [in which the] entire goal is to remind us that we are obligated to one-another — to protect and care for one another — prioritizing saving a human life above all else,” Hess Webber continued. “And so, I trust that if we are leading with care — even when our hearts and minds are tired — we are doing the right thing.”