A synagogue in transition can be a challenge for many congregants to navigate and feuding between clergy can only add to confusion. Fortunately, at Ahavath Achim Synagogue, relationships between rabbis could not be any warmer.
Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal has now officially stepped into the role of senior rabbi, taking over from Rabbi Neil Sandler, who has served the congregation as lead rabbi since 2004. Rosenthal has been at AA for more than a decade himself, his first posting out of rabbinical school.
“It really is to the credit of Rabbi Sandler,” Rosenthal said. “He saw that he and I had very different visions for the future, … and he said, ‘I think it’s time that Laurence could take over.’ He started the conversation about transitioning about four years ago.”
Rosenthal was sure to add that this journey was not one he was going on alone, and support from the community and from his family have been vital throughout the process.
“I have the greatest wife of all time. My wife Brooke is the source of my strength,” he said. “I am who I am because of her, like I wasn’t this person. I was not a senior rabbi person; I was not a leader before I met her.”
Sandler explained that the transition between the two rabbis was a “warm and caring one, … I had a lot to do with him becoming the senior rabbi, and I therefore have a lot invested in his success.” He also noted that their dynamic isn’t the case for all transitions, something to which Rosenthal could also attest.
“I have classmates and friends who’ve gone through nightmares with other clergy and I’ve been very blessed that that is not where I am,” Rosenthal said. “We’ve really been able to keep a very special relationship. From the very beginning he made me a partner in what we do.”
While he had a long lead time for the process, Rosenthal explained that the choice for him wasn’t a simple one either.
“My wife and I had to do a lot of soul searching. That was the first step,” he said. “I had to consider whether or not I wanted to stay in Atlanta. Is it the right place for us? … Every community has its challenges. And so, I had to decide whether I was the right person to tackle those challenges.”
Rosenthal explained that the transition to be a senior rabbi has caused him to think more carefully about how he speaks.
“I’ve been here my whole career, and part of my charm was I was this young, naïve-ish rabbi and I’d make jokes at my own expense,” he said. “I have to be a bit more guarded, because ultimately I have to sit and hold their hands in the hospital. So I’m trying to find the balance, because I don’t want to become an aloof, disconnected rabbi, but I also don’t want to undercut myself.”
With the high holidays approaching, this will be Rosenthal’s first big season as senior rabbi, but not his first leading the services from the bimah.
“Last year, I created the service which then I led,” he said. “I made all these major changes, so it is less of an abrupt about-face than last year. People didn’t know what to expect and were worried it would be very different, but thank G-d we got an incredible response.”
AA is a synagogue with a long, rich and complicated history, something Rosenthal isn’t overlooking as he steps into the new role.
“It fills me with a lot of pride. I’m only the fourth senior rabbi in almost 90 years. That’s really something,” he said.
He noted that individual relationships are a particular focus for him.
“That’s been the key to my success here, when people talk to me — for the most part even if they disagree with me — they feel heard.”
Sandler also noted that Rosenthal’s penchant for relationship-building has been a key for him.
“He really got the importance and power of relationships,” Sandler said. “If you want to focus on congregational life of any real and sustained meaning, you have to develop relationships, and Laurence has always gotten that.”
Sandler will be sticking around full time through September 2020, and then will step back to a part-time basis. He explained that he has been working hard to make the transition as simple as possible for those looking to him.
“We’ve got two rabbis in this congregation and I’m number two, one of the two rabbis, and so that calls for me to publicly always defer to Laurence,” he said. “That hasn’t been as hard for me as I thought maybe it might be.”
Rosenthal explained that his immediate vision for AA is centered around music, and then branches out into three core aspects: spiritual life, education and leadership development.
“When I talk about music, I’m talking beyond instruments and beyond tone, beyond you know, melodies, I’m talking about touching people in their soul in a way that music does that oftentimes concepts and words don’t,” he said. “And those three main areas, if we could really get those to be strong, I personally believe that AA’s future will be mapped out beyond me.”