Temple welcomes 'temporary shepherd'

When the Jewish High Holy Days get underway next month Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown will have a new leader in the pulpit.

Rabbi David A. Lipper is the temple’s interim rabbi, following the departure of Rabbi Leah Cohen who had led the congregation for 13 years. Rabbi Cohen left on July 22 to become executive director of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale University and senior Jewish chaplain. Although the congregation was sad to see her go, “our parting was on wonderful terms,” said David Abraham, president of the temple board.

“This is a completely different opportunity for her,” he said, “and it’s an opportunity for us to grow amongst ourselves.”

Because the congregation found out about Rabbi Cohen’s departure so late in the liturgical and fiscal year, there was not enough time to find a new permanent rabbi. Rabbinical contracts usually begin July 1, and so an interim rabbi was sought.

“We had a very attractive pool of candidates,” said Mr. Abraham, who lives in Wilton. He added, “we’re delighted to have Rabbi Lipper. He’s a highly engaging, well-learned charismatic rabbi. We are in a great position for this year.”

Rabbi Lipper, who began at Temple B’nai Chaim on Aug. 1, has spent the last four years working as an interim rabbi. “I travel around the country a year at a time filing gaps when there is a vacated position or help a congregation through difficulties,” he said.

Before taking on this way of life he was a settled rabbi for 22 years in three different congregations in Milwaukee; McAllen, Texas; and Akron, Ohio. He graduated with honors from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in political science and then attended Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem and Cincinnati, where he received a master of arts in Hebrew letters in 1987. He was ordained in 1988.

He has training in transitional ministry and a degree in nonprofit management.

“I’m really here just to keep things going,” Rabbi Lipper said. “I’m not here to create anything new. That’s for the next rabbi.” Quoting the title of a book that covers interim ministerial work he said, “I’m a temporary shepherd.”

As such, he will continue the work that has been ongoing: working with students studying for their bar or bat mitzvah, religious services, counseling, teaching adult classes, and in general ministering to the needs of the congregation.

“I am also here to help the leadership create the parameters of the position they are trying to fill,” Rabbi Lipper said, but he added, I’m not here to find the next rabbi and I’m not here to change the nature of the congregation.”

Mr. Abraham concurred. “Part of Rabbi Lipper’s role ... is to help us determine what kind of things we need to do for our own congregational development. He will help guide us in the search of a new permanent rabbi, which internally is already underway.

“We’re going to be a very attractive congregation for a rabbi,” he continued. “We are financially sound, we expanded our building three years ago, we have vibrant programs all around. We’re in a spot where we believe we’re going to be an attractive pulpit for an up-and-coming rabbi.”

The search process could last as long as a year, Mr. Abraham said. The board of directors will use the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), which is a job posting site.

The board will use part of that year to consider what they are looking for in a new rabbi. “How do we take the best of our culture and grow from here?” he said. Over the next year they will “learn more bout ourselves and find a rabbi who fits with our culture.”

Where they find that rabbi could affect the time frame of the search process. If the board finds a rabbi from another congregation — most likely an assistant rabbi — they would know around January or February. If they were to find a newly ordained rabbi, that would occur later in the fiscal year.

For now, Temple B’nai Chaim is in the hands of Rabbi Lipper, who said, “this is a great community with a very strong, committed leadership. It is just a pleasure to be here and help them through this stage of their congregational journey.”

Rabbi Lipper, who is living Ridgefield, said he is still finding his way around the area. “I didn’t expect it to be so rural,” he said. “The only other place I’ve been to in Connecticut was Hartford.”

While his surroundings have changed, he said his message for the High Holy Days has not in his move from being a settled to an interim rabbi.

His message centers on the “concept of being open to the endless possibilities that are ahead. How do we open ourselves up as opposed to close ourselves off?”