Seven months after launching a rabbinic search committee, Congregation Or Hadash signed a three-year contract April 1 with a rabbi from South Carolina to replace the founding rabbis of the Sandy Springs synagogue.
Rabbi Lauren Henderson, originally from Spartanburg, S.C., will replace Rabbi Analia Bortz and Rabbi Mario Karpuj in July, according to congregation President Ben Nadler. The rabbinic couple plan to make aliyah sometime this summer.
Rabbi Henderson was chosen from 17 rabbis who applied for the position, said Gita Berman, co-chair of the search committee. Co-chair Lynn Epstein said Henderson’s first video interview made a strong impression. “She operates in a state of grace,” Epstein said. “She’s not only poised and warm, but there’s a well of Jewish joy and learnedness that she possesses. This was amplified during the weekend,” at the end of February, when Henderson was invited to meet the nearly 18-year-old congregation and lead services.
“Shabbat was magical how people responded to her,” Epstein added. When the search committee surveyed congregants to ascertain their opinions of Henderson, fully 93 percent said they would be as involved or more involved in the synagogue headed by Henderson. “That’s the beautiful challah coming out of the oven,” Epstein enthused.
From the beginning of the search, Berman and Epstein made a point of hearing from all the congregation’s constituencies – “from the youngest to the families with kids to seniors” – about what they wanted in a new rabbi.
“We met with the synagogue’s key stakeholders as well as leaders in the greater Atlanta Jewish community,” said Berman, as their “small, but nimble committee” was formed. They also consulted with Congregation Shearith Israel, which had gone through a rabbinic search two years prior. “We wanted to hear how they had done it and they were very helpful. It’s not an easy process,” Berman said. “We were looking for our bashert and sometimes that takes time.”
Berman, who was the congregation’s first president, followed by Epstein, said they were delighted to take on the “holy task” of finding a replacement for the congregation’s beloved rabbis. The committee held several listening sessions with various groups of congregants and created an online survey to ask members what they wanted in their new rabbi.
Nadler said among the top things on the synagogue’s list of attributes it was seeking was “somebody who is inclusive. We felt it was important to have someone who believed in an open tent for people of all kinds of traditions and levels of observance. We wanted someone open and accessible to Jews of all types.” Other important attributes were a love of social justice, love of music and someone who was passionate about teaching.
Henderson, who was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2016, already had her eye on Atlanta when the position of rabbi at Congregation Or Hadash came up. During rabbinic school, she was already thinking about returning to the Southeast. And then in 2016, she interviewed with Congregation B’nai Torah, but it wasn’t “quite the right fit and timing.”
She told the AJT that she began exploring Atlanta and contemplated “what would it look like to start a new community,” such as the one where she’s worked for the last four years in Chicago. Mishkan Chicago is a unique spiritual environment that is not bound by a particular location, according to its website. But Henderson realized that she is not an entrepreneur. “My skill set is to go into a community and help reimagine a new creative” future, she said.
Before Henderson “pivoted” to Jewish practice, after growing up on the “fringe of the Jewish community” in her hometown, music was her “spiritual home.”
“I love to sing and lead davening,” she said. She played the clarinet when she was growing up, but added somewhat sheepishly that she doesn’t play the guitar.
The day after Henderson submitted her application for the position at Congregation Or Hadash, she traveled to Guatemala with a handful of Jewish leaders as part of the Global Justice Fellowship run by American Jewish World Service, an organization that supports human rights and efforts to fight poverty in developing countries. Among the group was Rabbi Bortz, so she had an opportunity to chat with her about the congregation.
Henderson spoke about the responsibility of following Rabbis Bortz and Karpuj, noting that “no one can fill their shoes.” Hearing that, Karpuj pointed out that “we are taking our shoes with us.”
Along with her husband, Joel Dworkin, Henderson is excited about joining the Atlanta Jewish community. “I would love the community to know that I’m going to be a part of this wider ecosystem. It’s been a dream of mine for the last couple of years and I’m excited to collaborate and learn from and participate in what it has to offer.”
A transition committee has been appointed to figure out the hand-off between Rabbis Bortz and Karpuj and Rabbi Henderson. “The pandemic could affect that,” Nadler said. “One lesson we’ve learned is that we can only do so much planning and we must let nature take its course.”