By Michael Jacobs / firstname.lastname@example.org
Temple Beth Tikvah is continuing its journey along the traditional side of the Reform path behind a rabbi who took an untraditional route to the pulpit.
The Roswell congregation approved Rabbi Alexandria Shuval-Weiner as the fourth rabbi in its 28-year history at a special meeting Feb. 1. She will replace Rabbi Fred Greene, who is leaving at the end of June after nine years.
Beth Tikvah President Ron Swichkow said Rabbi Shuval-Weiner emerged as the clear choice of the search committee because of her strong background in education, her enthusiasm and her compassion. She and Cantor Nancy Kassel will form the only all-woman clergy team among Atlanta synagogues.
“She was the best person we saw, and we saw a lot,” Swichkow said, adding that she will keep Beth Tikvah moving in the direction set by all of her predecessors. He praised her eagerness to get to know the congregation through efforts such as having meaningful personal contact with every family in her first few months on the job.
Rabbi Shuval-Weiner has served as the second rabbi at Congregation B’nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kan., since her ordination at Hebrew Union College in spring 2008, but that was far from her first synagogue job.
The Los Angeles native had a successful career as an educator that began in Israel after she made Aliyah out of high school and earned a bachelor’s degree from Bar-Ilan University. That career continued at synagogues after what were supposed to be temporary family circumstances brought her back to the United States more than 20 years ago.
Entering rabbinical school was the fulfillment of a long-deferred childhood dream. Rabbi Shuval-Weiner said she moved around a lot as a child — the longest she has ever lived in one place was nine years in Portland, Ore. — because of her father’s job in hotel management. Membership in Conservative synagogues provided continuity from place to place.
“I was a little synagogue groupie,” Rabbi Shuval-Weiner said. She can’t remember the names and faces of all the rabbis she had as a child, but she remembers how welcome and connected they made her feel. “I wanted to grow up and be a rabbi just like these wonderful people.”
The Conservative movement didn’t have female rabbis when she was a little girl, however, and her career dream just earned her chuckles and pats on the head. When she finally took the opportunity to go to rabbinical school at her second husband’s urging when the youngest of her five children was 10 and her two oldest were in college, she was responding to something that had been nagging at her all along.
“From the moment I was ordained, I suddenly felt whole,” she said. “I love being a rabbi.”
Despite her Conservative upbringing, she chose the Reform rabbinate because of its dynamic approach of continually engaging with, understanding and committing to decisions about how to practice Judaism in the 21st century. It was not an easy decision, but “at the end of the day, “I feel that in the Reform Judaism of today, one can be as tradition-minded as one wants.”
That decision put her in the unusual position of being a Conservative-raised Reform rabbi married to a man who grew up classically Reform but has worked for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism for two decades. Jay Weiner will continue that work when the couple, now empty-nesters, move to Roswell this summer with their rescue dog, Duncan.
With that background, the rabbi sees herself as being toward the right wing of the Reform movement when it comes to ritual even though she’s to the left politically. “I feel very passionate about the power of ritual,” Rabbi Shuval-Weiner said. “I feel that ritual brings a lot of meaning to our lives, ritual with intention.”
That attitude aligns well with Temple Beth Tikvah, which Swichow said maintains the traditional approach to Reform Judaism under which it was founded with Rabbi Donald Tam.
With just under 500 families, Beth Tikvah also was the right size for Rabbi Shuval-Weiner when she began looking for a new position, but Georgia was not her intended destination.
For all her moving around, the closest she came to living in the South was Florida, where she became a bat mitzvah. But she said people have made sure she understands that Georgia is nothing like Florida.
Her family and her husband’s family are on the West Coast, and her second-youngest child, Ariel, plans to move to the West after graduation from Kansas State University in May. The family assumption was that Rabbi Shuval-Weiner also would go west, so the idea of Atlanta was daunting at first.
The warmth and passion of Beth Tikvah helped turn that nervousness into excitement.
“There was such a sense of love and devotion for the congregation,” she said. She was impressed by the enthusiasm people expressed for Rabbi Tam, Rabbi Greene and even Rabbi Avi Levine, who served as the interim spiritual leader between them, and she was drawn to the congregation’s community activities and the youth programs Rabbi Greene instituted.
“It seemed so vibrant,” Rabbi Shuval-Weiner said. “People adore their community and want to make the synagogue the best place it can be.”
Because she’s entering a strong congregation, she isn’t planning big changes on arrival. Instead, she plans to bring an open heart, mind and ears so she can get to know all of the congregation. “I’m looking forward to the opportunity of hearing people’s passions and goals so we can create the vision for the next phase together.”