Rabbi David Katz from Rochester, N.Y., is the new interim spiritual leader at Congregation Dor Tamid, replacing Rabbi Michael Weinstein after his three years at the Johns Creek synagogue.
Rabbi Katz received formal certification to serve as an interim rabbi from the Central Conference of American Rabbis. He holds degrees from Northwestern University and earned his master of Hebrew letters and master of arts in Hebrew education from Hebrew Union College. Ordained in 1981, he went on to become a Reform Jewish educator.
We talked in his office, still filled with packing boxes.
AJT: How do you see your role here?
Katz: The congregation needs to take a bit of a break in order to re-envision itself and see what it’s all about before moving to a long-term rabbi. My role is pretty much to come and talk to people and find out what their needs are and make things as good for the future rabbi as can be, whether that involves any political divisiveness, regrouping of staff, hiring or helping hire new people. It could be leadership strengthening; it could be anything for the congregation to see itself in a very strong position in the future. This place is very upbeat. Things are happening that are good, and there is great potential as well. It’s inspiring in many ways. It will become an even stronger environment.
AJT: Did you know you wanted to become a rabbi when you were in college?
Katz: I’ve always been interested in teaching and learning, and I’ve been different types of rabbi, but they’ve always been in the area of where the primary point is to teach others. When I was studying theater, it occurred to me that theater could be a good learning tool. And when I did my master of education, I learned about teaching to the mind and the heart simultaneously, so whether I’ve been an educator leading a school or a professor, which I have been, or a pulpit rabbi, it’s pretty much been the same thing.
AJT: Talk a bit about your work in theater and how it relates to what you do now.
Katz: I had two Jewish theater companies, and I taught in intergenerational circumstances. I was studying that wholeheartedly as a discipline in itself. Even then, I was writing papers about religion and art and ethics to motivate people to do good through theater. That was one of my themes in college, actually. There are certain playwrights, and that is their goal. Bertolt Brecht, he had a very serious philosophy: You’re not just there to entertain, but to change the world. And he had a very particular term that he created, the Alienation Effect, meaning the audience should always be kept a little off-kilter, not be brought in emotionally, but judging, always being critical and objective, walking out not only having learned something, but planning to do something.
That was just one playwright who tried to figure out how art could be more than just for art’s sake, that it could produce change. But it could be used for the opposite effect too. You could get a whole group of people riled for the wrong motives. Those are some of the themes I was dealing with in college, and I continue to be interested in. When I listen to a sermon or watch a performance, I really wonder how someone’s mind can change, whether they will then go out into the world and actually do something to improve it.
AJT: What do you like to do when you’re not working?
Katz: I read a lot; I’m reading biographies, nonfiction. I like theater, movies. Right now I’m trying to get settled, acclimated, putting together my office. I love a night out, dining, jazz groups. It’s catch as catch can. It’s hard to get free time.
AJT: What is personally satisfying to you about your work?
Katz: Teaching is satisfying. Helping people to prioritize their lives, to see what is important in life. People are often confused. They hurt, or intellectually they just want to be inspired. They want to go deeper and deeper, so one of the greatest pleasures is doing that with people in whatever circumstance they’re in — to help them become the best they can be and ultimately leave the world a little better. Jews by tradition are not supposed to be at peace unless the world is at peace, so there is always something that should be addressed.