Article appeared on August 29, 2007
- Reprinted with permission of the Newton Tab

Rabbi joins the fold at Shir Hadash (8/29/2007)

By Leslie Friday
Newton Tab

September marks a time of change and deep reflection for Judaism. For the members of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist congregation in Newton Centre, the new year will also bring change that is much more than spiritual.

The lay-led congregation, or Havurah, known for its egalitarian and participatory philosophy, recently hired Rabbi Audrey Marcus-Berkman to help inspire the congregation.

Shir Hadash, which has not had a rabbi on staff for several years, used to be aligned with Dorshei Tzedek in West Newton. The two congregations split paths about 15 years ago when Shir Hadash chose to stick firmly to its Havurah roots, which called for all members of the congregation to be on equal levels.

That idea has lessened with the passage of time and an injection of new members.

"Each of us is going to have to find a way to work with Audrey," said Shir Hadash President Michael Feldstein. "You have to give up in order to get, and the question really is finding the right balance."

Marcus-Berkman understands the paradox as well. She said she plans to "give [members] leadership, but allow them to hold onto their character as a lay-led group."

This is the first placement for the New Haven, Conn., native. A Shir Hadash committee selected Marcus-Berkman from a group of candidates who were interviewed and allowed to perform services so the congregation could get a flavor for their style.

In the end, Marcus-Berkman's youth, energy and experience with Jewish literature, poetry and musical traditions won her the spot.

"There was an immediate clicking between our group and her -- a sort of a synergy," said Madelyn Morris, co-chairman of Shir Hadash's membership committee. "We think that synergy will help us become an even better group."

The decision to hire a part-time rabbi came after some group soul-searching.

In the end, Feldstein said the congregation hoped a rabbi would increase membership in their 60-family congregation.

"None of us is getting any younger," Feldstein said. Through the addition of Marcus-Berkman, "we hope that we could find a way to revitalize ourselves and pass this on to another group of people."

Members also thought a professional would bring fresh ideas to weekly services.

"We didn't feel like we had a lot of good solutions from within our own group," Feldstein said.

Marcus-Berkman, 33, comes to Shir Hadash with a wealth of life experience. She said she was raised in a Reform synagogue, had a bat mitzvah and attended a Hebrew school. But a semester of studies in Israel during her undergrad career at Oberlin College sparked her intellectual interest in Judaism.

The trip led her to a master's degree in theological studies at Harvard University. She had prepared to hunker down for doctoral studies, but got sidetracked working as a counselor in New York City after September 11, 2001.

That's when she had her ah-ha moment: she could combine her passions for music, counseling and Judaism into rabbinical studies.

Marcus-Berkman enrolled in the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa., and was ordained in June.

As the newly ordained rabbi describes it, Reconstructionism is based on the idea that Judaism is the evolving civilization of the Jewish people. Founded in the early part of the 20th century in North America, this branch of faith embraced the idea that Jews could live in two civilizations — the one they discovered in the United States, and the other they took with them from overseas.

"You didn't have to leave your rational, intellectual self at the door. You could be both," Marcus-Berkman said. "What you believe about God is not as important as belonging to that community."

The movement is described by members as egalitarian and democratic. Marcus-Berkman added to that picture.

"I see myself and our community as part of the larger world of liberal or progressive Judaism in America," she said.

The Newton Corner resident admitted that finding her profession as a Reconstructionist rabbi was more of a journey than a lifelong conviction.

"No one ever thought that I would grow up and become a rabbi," Marcus-Berkman said.

Shir Hadash members are excited to have her join their fold.

"She brings to the mix a lot of talents," Morris said, referencing the rabbi's experience in Jewish music, literature and poetry. "We not only benefit from her participation, but she'll also empower us because we'll be getting a lot from her."

Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem happens to be Marcus-Berkman's great-great-grandfather.

Marcus-Berkman, whose husband, Jethro, is a rabbi at Needham's Temple Aliyah, is realistic about what lie ahead as she works with Shir Hadash members to find a balance between leadership and communion with the group.

"It's inherently challenging and we all are going into it excited about the possibilities and aware of the challenges," she said.

Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Havurah of Greater Boston meets at the Lutheran Church of the Newtons, 1310 Centre St., Newton Center. Saturday services begin at 9:45 a.m. For more information, call 617-564-0186, e-mail or visit
Rabbi Rachel Dvash Schoenfeld