“Interim rabbi” can imply many things. In the case of Congregation Shearith Israel and Rabbi Melvin Sirner, it’s a perfect fit.
Rabbi Sirner’s presence is reassuring, and his experience is vast. He is filling a void for Shearith after a roller-coaster, unsuccessful search last year for a full-time rabbi to succeed Rabbi Hillel Norry, who left at the end of June. That search will resume after the High Holidays.
The interim position at Shearith also has allowed Rabbi Sirner to remove himself from the spotlight at his New Rochelle, N.Y., synagogue of 43 years, giving a new rabbi the space to take the helm at Beth El Synagogue, where Rabbi Sirner now has emeritus status. He is left with a path to return to his home community when his Shearith contract ends in a year.
He decided 1½ years ago to retire from Beth El, whose membership is more than twice Shearith’s. “Even as it has been a great blessing to be in one place for a long time, the pulpit rabbinate requires 120 percent of oneself, of time, energy. I attempted to give that, and I felt that I was looking to have a little more time, a little more freedom, a little more leisure, and therefore I decided that it was time for me to retire.”
Knowing that a rabbinic search can be an extended process, Rabbi Sirner gave the synagogue extensive notice.
Born and raised in Chicago, he spent many formative summers as a camper and in staff roles at the Conservative movement’s Ramah camps, “which had a big influence in my high school and college years towards pursuing further Jewish study and the rabbinate.”
After earning his bachelor’s in political science and psychology from the University of Michigan, he was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1972. He then went to Beth El for what he thought would be a two-year stint as the assistant rabbi. But he became the senior rabbi when Rabbi David Golovensky retired in 1976, and Rabbi Sirner remained there until his retirement this summer.
“My full-time rabbinate has been one place, 43 years,” Rabbi Sirner said. “So this is a big move for me.”
He and his wife, Lenore, have three adult children: two in New York and one in Atlanta. Lenore is a former administrator and retired director of the social work department at the Burke Rehabilitation Hospital in White Plains.
Although Shearith Israel discovered Rabbi Sirner through a Rabbinic Assembly interim rabbi search in late spring, prior forces were in play. He found the synagogue last year through Shalom Baby, an intown arm of the Marcus Jewish Community Center, and first visited Shearith in November when he and Lenore dropped off daughter Gabrielle and her infant son, now 10 months old, for a Shalom Baby program.
Gabrielle’s family lives less than two miles from the shul.
“It’s kind of beshert,” Rabbi Sirner said. “Being a rabbi … inevitably I came into the synagogue, and I walked around.” He saw a blank rabbinic survey on a table, similar to the fliers in his New Rochelle synagogue, and he became aware of the search.
Another connection is that a leader of Beth El was Dr. Abraham Geffen, son of legendary longtime Shearith Israel Rabbi Tobias Geffen, the man who declared Coca-Cola kosher and opened Emory University to Jews by sending his sons there.
So when the need for an interim rabbi arose in the spring, Rabbi Sirner was familiar with the synagogue and its “long and distinguished history of serving the Jewish community here in Atlanta.”
Knowing a few people here and getting to be near his daughter, son-in-law and first grandchild “made the possibility very interesting and exciting.”
He was careful to add: “I’m not coming here just because of our grandchild, right? I’m not coming here to tread water. I’m here to do everything I can to sustain and to build Jewish life for Shearith Israel. … I had always, over the years, heard many wonderful things about Shearith Israel.”
Rabbi Sirner compared Beth El and Shearith. Both have recently celebrated centennials and have moved from previous locations, and both have strong roots with multiple-generation families in addition to new ones.
The decision to retire as senior rabbi after 43 years and subsequently to move to Atlanta for the first year did not come lightly. He weighed the situation and did a lot of reading on the subject. “It’s not so easy to go cold turkey, and I think there’s merit in being able to step back and in finding a way to do that,” Rabbi Sirner said. “So this provides an opportunity to continue to be active in the rabbinate. … I believe, in all humility, and I guess some people here do too, that I have something to contribute to this community for now. And that’s what I’m here to do.”