LIMA — This was the wrong brother, she thought.
It was her oldest son, Howie, who had been named after her uncle, just as that uncle had been named after his uncle before him. And so it had gone for generations. In this proud mother’s family, one eldest son after another had become a rabbi.
But now the chain had been broken. It was Howard Stein’s younger brother Peter who was being ordained a rabbi. While Howard himself had chosen a career in software engineering.
“That broke a chain of seven generations,” Stein recalled over dinner at The Milano Cafe. “The eldest son in each generation had been a rabbi. We’re all very close, and my brother’s a really wonderful rabbi. But there was this sense that ‘Wait a minute. Howie’s the one who’s named after the chain of rabbis.’”
The situation was eventually set aright, however. After spending almost a decade working for the Raytheon Company in the Boston area, Stein decided that it was time for a change that would allow him to pursue his passion for making a positive impact on the world.
“My employer was very flexible in terms of my being able to leave work early to go and volunteer,” he recalled. “But I’d be sitting in rush hour traffic in Boston and that gave me some time to think, and I started to think about how much more I could accomplish if work didn’t keep getting in the way.”
So Stein quit his job, went back to school, and in 2009 he was ordained a rabbi, thereby restoring order to the family tradition for yet another generation.
This autumn, Stein brings his eight years of experience as a rabbi and educator to Lima, where he will serve as spiritual leader at Temple Beth Israel-Shaare Zedek.
The appointment comes after an extensive search that began last May when Rabbi Yossi Zylberberg abruptly announced that he was leaving the congregation to take a job in New York.
“He left in Mid-May before his contract was up,” explained Temple President Connie Levy Hornung. “So we started our search by the beginning of June. And we had people from Indianapolis, Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh … I can’t remember where all. [They] came in to interview. And the interview process was a whole weekend of activities.”
Following the interviews, some candidates chose to pursue other opportunities. Others proved to be a bad fit. But four long months later, Hornung and her board decided that Stein had the qualifications and temperament they were seeking.
“We really liked what Rabbi Stein had to say,” said Hornung, “so we finally said, ‘Yes! We found our rabbi.’”
For Stein, Rabbi Zylberberg’s departure represented an opportunity that came along at just the right time in his life. Since 2013 he has been serving as rabbi at Temple Hadar Israel in New Castle, Pennsylvania, a small community 50 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. But at the end of the year, this congregation — which was founded in 1894 — will be closing its doors for good.
It is a simple matter of economics and demography.
“In western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio,” the 48-year-old Stein explained, “they had an industrial base. And when the mills closed — the Jews didn’t necessarily work in the mills, they were merchants and professionals — but when the mills close, people leave town. The stores take a hit. And then young people don’t move into the area. So it’s an aging congregation. Most of the time when I go up there, I’m the youngest person there. And the president of the congregation is second and he’s got ten years on me. It’s hard.”
Hornung’s own congregation faces a similar challenge. When she and I were growing up in Lima, the city had two vibrant Jewish congregations. Now it has just one and, Hornung admits, it is just hanging on.
“We lost eight members out of this small congregation just this past year alone. And I think five passed away the year before. So it is scary.”
Because his wife, Debbie Swartz, has a full-time position with the Jewish Federation in Pittsburgh, Rabbi Stein will continue to live in Pennsylvania and make the five-hour commute to Lima twice a month. It is probably not an ideal situation, but while he is here he feels that he can make his presence felt.
“I think certainly if I drive up Friday morning and get here in the afternoon, that’s certainly an opportunity to not only visit congregants who may be ill, but to build connections with other clergy in the area, other community organizations, to represent the Jewish community.”
And even if that community is shrinking, Hornung believes the effort she and other members of the congregation have put into finding their new rabbi have been worthwhile.
“This is my home synagogue,” she said. “It’s where I was born. We support everybody, in the good times and in the bad times. As long as there are people out there who want to have an ordained rabbi and regular shabbat services and everything Jewish that we can provide, as long as people want the doors open, we’re going to do our darnedest to make sure there is a rabbi here and that they’ll have a semi-regular shabbat schedule and all the holidays will be celebrated when they’re supposed to be. That’s important.”
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