Huntsville synagogue brings in new rabbi amid national shortage

WAFF's Megan Plotka reporting
Published: Apr. 10, 2023 at 11:31 AM CDT
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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (WAFF) - A new rabbi is headed to Huntsville’s historic synagogue after a long and grueling search on top of a national rabbi shortage.

The Temple B’nai Shalom leaders spent well over a year looking for the right fit.

The Rabbi Search Committee interviewed a handful of applicants when Rabbi Eric Berk left the congregation after four years. Committee member Larisa Thomason says they weren’t good matches for the temple so they reached out to the newly-retired Rabbi Scott Colbert to fill the void and help with the rabbi search along the way. He wasn’t sure how long he would be a part of the congregation when he signed up but was eager to assist a small, southern Reform community.

A more permanent solution was on the horizon in January. The search committee interviewed South Carolina native Rabbi PJ Schwartz and the members were blown away by his empathy, kindness and passion for Judaism.

“Every question that we asked, every question that he asked us, it just seemed like we were talking to someone who was already a friend and who cared about the congregation and about us,” Thomason said. “When we finished that first interview everybody said we got to do what we got to do we have to bring him in.”

Thomason calls this meeting ‘besheret,’ which loosely translates to ‘meant to be.’

WAFF's Megan Plotka reporting

After his interview, the committee members were excited to invite him to a visit to the temple but they were concerned they couldn’t offer him a competitive salary. Just two days before his visit, the temple received the prestigious Heartland Fellowship Grant which helps small Jewish communities retain their leadership.

The grant added $40,000 to the rabbi’s salary with a mentorship program that connects him to rabbis in other small towns. Thomason says they were excited to make him a much more attractive offer. They think his connection to the South and experience with youth education will be a great match with Temple B’nai Sholom’s priorities.

“We have a joint community religious school here in Huntsville with children from several congregations,” said Thomason. “So, we’re very excited about the new ideas that he can bring in to help us better engage our children and teach them about Judaism and set them on the right path to being good Jews.”

Rabbi Schwartz is set to start in the summer.

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