When newly hired Congregation Shearith Israel Rabbi Ari Kaiman headed off to the University of Florida about 15 years ago, he had Jewish communal service in mind, but he was thinking about lobbying for AIPAC.
The Walton High School graduate, who said his real education came through USY as a member of Congregation Etz Chaim, was on that path as a political science major when he found in his sophomore year that “I had no idea for sure what I wanted to do.”
So he prayed. He asked G-d what he should do with his life. And in an intense moment of feeling G-d’s presence, he had his answer: He was going to be a rabbi.
He told his girlfriend, Emily Green, with whom he’ll celebrate his 10th wedding anniversary this summer, and things have fallen into place ever since.
He won a rabbinic internship at 800-family Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis, the Green family’s synagogue, for three summers while he attended the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, then was hired as an assistant rabbi there upon his ordination. So the Kaimans’ four children, 6-year-old twins Eliana and Amalia, 4-year-old Maayan, and 2-year-old Shai, have lived close to their maternal grandparents.
When Rabbi Kaiman takes the pulpit at Shearith Israel on July 15, the children will be close to their paternal grandparents, Jay and Natalie Kaiman.
“Family is a primary value for my family,” Rabbi Kaiman said. “To have the opportunity to move from one set of grandparents to another set of grandparents is a blessing. I have so many connection to Atlanta from the high school days and from people I knew in college who ended up in Atlanta, people from the Ramah Darom community (where he was a camper and a counselor) who are still in Atlanta, that it feels very much like a very natural transition to me and that I won’t be starting from Square 1.”
When Rabbi Kaiman was in high school and became a subregion president in USY, Shearith Israel wasn’t part of the Conservative movement. But many youth group members he looked up to attended Shearith and joined Ahavath Achim Synagogue’s USY chapter.
“We all grow older, and we all have opportunities to see the younger generation become adults,” the 33-year-old said. “I’m excited to get to see all stages of life, and that includes the parents of friends of mine from when I was in high school.”
With all those connections, it’s not surprising that Rabbi Kaiman is optimistic about the future of the shul, the Conservative movement and the Jewish people.
“I’m excited about this moment in Jewish history, to get to be a leader at this moment in Jewish history,” Rabbi Kaiman said. He said Jews have never been more accepted in the world, and Jewish wisdom has never been more attractive to Jews and non-Jews alike, creating the potential for growth and a “transition to what I think might be a new stage of Jewish history that might be the most vibrant of all.”
“I don’t think it’s going to look like the past, and when we are talking about the challenges today, we are talking about the growing pains,” he added. “So I feel excited that I get to be not only a witness, but an active participant in this stage of Jewish history.”
He credited his many teachers — he said he learns from clergy and from congregants — for clarifying that vision of the future, which is “going to be defined by a joyous engagement. It’s going to be defined not by fear, but by love. And that’s where my heart is: My heart is inspired by love, so it feels really exciting to be part of it.”
He’ll bring to Shearith that excitement and his experience creating and leading a young-adult group at B’nai Amoona. He said the key to engaging people from their mid-20s to their early 40s was to focus on the stage in life, not the age, and make sure the kids weren’t an obstacle to programming for the parents.
Shearith’s intown location and its dedication to tikkun olam, as typified by the Rebecca’s Tent women’s shelter, were key attractions for Rabbi Kaiman, who had his own recent experience with social justice. After Michael Brown was killed in nearby Ferguson in August 2014, the rabbi spoke at an interfaith service and marched with other clergy.
“I discovered the Torah of activism,” he said. “To this day, I sometimes wonder what we are accomplishing because the conversation isn’t over, but I know that being involved in the whole community from the perspective of Judaism is something that came to be an inspiration to my own rabbinate.”