A New Young Rabbi Takes the Helm

by Robert I. Evans and Avrum D. Lapin

Rabbi Amy Feder will become the seventh senior rabbi of Congregation Temple Israel of St. Louis, Missouri, on July 1, 2010, succeeding Rabbi Mark Shook, who is retiring. At the age of 31, she becomes the youngest female Senior Rabbi to serve a large Reform congregation. To gain some insights into her plans, we spoke with Rabbi Feder, who herself is a fourth generation member of Temple Israel. Even though we have known and respected her for several years, we wanted to learn about her perspectives on a number of timely issues.

Comfortable in her book-packed study that also features pictures of her 16-month-old son and husband Michael Alper, who also serves as a Rabbi at Temple Israel, Rabbi Feder shared with us her candid thoughts about what lies ahead as she addresses how her 1,100-member congregation experiences Judaism and how she will work to engage the Jewish community.

How does it feel to take on the role as the youngest female Senior Rabbi of a large Reform Congregation?

Rabbi Feder: “It’s both daunting and very exciting. I recognize that I am in a very unique position because of my age, but not as much so because of my gender. My gender doesn’t define my rabbinate, although it’s a big part of me and I’m proud of it. But the year I was ordained half of my class was comprised of women. We are the second generation of female rabbis . . . no longer a novelty!”

How have your rabbinical colleagues reacted to your appointment?

Rabbi Feder: “My colleagues have been very supportive, although my appointment is still surprising to some people because of my age. The Temple was very diligent about following all the guidelines and procedures of the Union for Reform Judaism. To get this position, I went through a very long process and was considered along with some really great candidates. Had Temple Israel not been the congregation where I grew up and interned as a rabbinical student, it might not have been the right fit for both sides. This is very forward thinking of the congregation to be breaking barriers by bringing in a young female senior rabbi.”

As you assume the pulpit as Senior Rabbi, what is your vision for the congregation?

Rabbi Feder: “I want more people to be truly engaged in Jewish life and not just belong to the synagogue because their parents or grandparents are here. I want them to have a more meaningful life with Jewish content and flavor. I want to offer it to them in the right light, so that it is appealing to them.”

You certainly have a unique perspective on Temple Israel; how will this characterize your Rabbinate?

Rabbi Feder: “Both my husband and I are rabbis and also young parents. I sometimes think that if we weren’t rabbis we might not have joined a synagogue right away. Being a young parent is a real job in itself. I believe that the congregation needs to reach out in new ways to attract younger parents and other segments of the Jewish community by emphasizing spirituality and connection. Because Jewish knowledge is often minimal, some people feel embarrassed. Therefore, I will emphasize social action, transformative worship, and the highlighting of meaningful Jewish moments.”

Do you have any programmatic goals or aspirations?

Rabbi Feder: “I’d like especially to address the younger generation that’s often unengaged. We need to reach out to them in new ways. We must work in collaboration with other organizations. The Jewish Federation has a great young professionals division and we’d love to collaborate with them more, meeting young professionals through social gatherings. We’re also looking at havurot and other groups, trying to get them together and create a core-network for them so that they feel comfortable and connected when they arrive at Temple Israel.”

Is technology playing a role in your daily agenda?

Rabbi Feder: “My husband and I both recently joined Facebook. We have been social networking with congregants of all ages and now have a greater understanding of what is going on in the lives of many of our congregants. Recently, a teenage congregant was hospitalized and before anyone had the chance to call us, we saw it posted on Facebook. Michael and I were able to reach out to the family and to be of assistance immediately. We have discovered that congregants, particularly our teens and younger adults, will post personal information on Facebook that they would never consider telling their Rabbi in person. Communicating actively with congregants and utilizing new technology will enable me to be a more effective Rabbi.”

How do you plan to address fundraising?

Rabbi Feder: “It’s not an easy time to deal with fundraising, but it’s one of the most important priorities for every congregation. I can’t be scared to ask people for support. So many individuals and families give to charitable causes but they don’t seem to see the Temple as a priority to be supporting or to take care of, like the local symphony or their alma mater. I want to help them see the value in supporting the Temple, partly by improving programming and also by my reaching out personally to every congregant. I know how important it is to begin to cultivate them as members and as donors, to show that I care about them, and to find out what they are looking for from us.

People sometimes seem surprised when I pick up the phone to call them. I am there for them when they are the most vulnerable, so I should also be able to talk with them about everyday issues and even something as ‘taboo’ as money.”

How should clergy be involved in fundraising?

Rabbi Feder: “I know that there are people who think that Rabbis shouldn’t be involved with money, but I am. When people cannot afford Temple dues, I call them to discuss the situation; it’s a sensitive topic but one that brings us closer together on so many fronts. People tend to have very positive reactions to my involvement in this process. This is often how I find out how I can help them more.”

How has your mother influenced your approach to fundraising?

Rabbi Feder: My mom is the executive director of a local non-profit organization, but she started out as a development director. She would come home and say that people are just waiting to be asked and that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask. She ingrained this in me and I strongly feel that as clergy we must also take on that outlook.”

Robert I. Evans, Managing Director, and Avrum D. Lapin, Director, are principals of The EHL Consulting Group, of suburban Philadelphia, and are frequent contributors to eJewishPhilanthropy.com. EHL Consulting works with dozens of nonprofits on fundraising, strategic planning, and non-profit business practices. Become a fan of The EHL Consulting Group on Facebook.