Interim or Permanent Rabbi: The Best Way to Go?

It depends.

Temple Ner Tamid is a 480+ family congregation in Bloomfield, NJ – about 12 miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel. When Rabbi Steven Kushner becomes our emeritus rabbi in June, he will have been our rabbi for 38 years.

Two years ago, he shared with the congregation his retirement plans. It wasn’t a shock. Synagogue leadership was aware of his plans and a Transition Committee had already been formed and involved in the planning of this important announcement. We consulted early on with the Central Conference of American Rabbis (“CCAR”) and the Union for Reform Judaism (“URJ”). We created a calendar of focus groups/parlor meetings to engage a critical mass of our community in a conversation about our synagogue’s strengths and weaknesses and our hopes and dreams for the future.

The rabbi’s retirement was really a natural occurrence. There was no crisis in leadership – no warring board or staff factions, no board meetings where people almost came to blows. And no serious financial challenges. There could always be a bigger endowment fund, so the congregation is not so reliant on dues and religious school tuition. And all of these issues were raised by congregants in our focus groups.

Our Transition Committee analyzed intensely the feedback from the 200 people who participated in focus groups. We read literature about transition and organizational change. We spoke to synagogue leaders who had engaged interim rabbis for 1-2 years before hiring a permanent rabbi, and those who were intent on hiring a permanent rabbi. And over the course of many weeks, we had some very intense discussions about hiring an interim or permanent rabbi.

The Transition Committee decided to move forward with conducting a search for a permanent rabbi. While we had issues, none were that critical. And we felt that engaging an interim would put our future on hold for a year.

Also, the way the search process works through the CCAR, should our search committee have been unable to find the right candidate for a permanent hire by the end of the calendar year, we would then be able to engage in a search process for an interim rabbi in the early months of 2018.

There are never any guarantees when you hire anyone. This is true when hiring a permanent rabbi or an interim rabbi. Especially such a critical position for a synagogue that has had one spiritual leader for nearly four decades. Like any work situation, there will be a period of adjustment. It will take time for leadership, staff, and congregants to get used to a new person on the Bima, a new sermonic voice.

I guess that is what people said 37 years ago when Rabbi Kushner came to our community. And things worked out pretty well, and we are confident that, in July 2018, our synagogue will continue to be a vibrant sacred community with Rabbi Marc Katz as our spiritual leader.

And there are synagogues that go the permanent rabbi search route where the person hired in fact becomes the “unintended interim”.

I am not advocating that conducting a search for a permanent rabbi is right for every synagogue. Read this and read this about interim success stories.

It just seemed right for us!

1 Comment on “Interim or Permanent Rabbi: The Best Way to Go?

  1. The missing part of your article is how your temple will transition to a new rabbi after having had the same man in the pulpit for close to 40 yrs, which is essentially 2 generations… at least.
    An interim rabbi affords the congregation the opportunity to mourn their loss and then begin to see the world post-Kushner. Without an interim rabbi, your temple had better engage in a massive transition program that is carefully structured. Otherwise your new permanent rabbi stands no chance of succeeding.

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