LIMA — Rabbi Yosef Zylberberg is the new rabbi at Temple Beth Israel-Shaare Zedek. However, he did not always want to be a rabbi. “Some people thought I should be a rabbi when I was a little kid, but I didn’t like that idea,” he said.
In college, his Hebrew instructor also suggested that he would make a good rabbi, but Zylberberg again disagreed.
Finally, at the age of 24, he applied to rabbinical school. “It was probably because I felt I could add something to the rabbinate that was unique,” he said.
Zylberberg, who belongs to the reformed branch of Judaism, spent five years in school to become a rabbi, completing his thesis and becoming ordained in the fifth year. He has served as a rabbi at various congregations for more than 30 years.
The former rabbi at Temple Beth Israel-Shaare Zedek, Rabbi Barnett Brickner, left in June to be the full-time senior rabbi in Alameda, Calif.
“We can only afford a rabbi who comes to us one weekend a month from out of town the past few years, and they need other jobs to survive,” explained Connie Hornung, president of the board of trustees at Temple Beth Israel-Shaare Zedek. “Rabbi Brickner had studied to be a hospital chaplain and hoped to get the residency in that program at Ohio State University Hospital in Columbus where he trained. However, he did not get that position, which would have been his main source of income, and realized that he needed to find a full-time position.”
Zylberberg had moved back to Ohio from Virginia not too long ago to be closer to family. He currently is an adjunct professor and teaches an introduction to the study of religion on the Lancaster campus of Ohio University, in addition to serving as a rabbi.
“He has always lived full-time in the other communities he has served,” explained Hornung, “but he wanted to retire, and we wanted a part-time rabbi. So, we connected.”
Hornung, who led the search, started by contacting the Union for Reform Judaism's regional director, Rabbi Steve Mills for names. Mills had three names for Hornung. All three candidates were brought in for a weekend. Each candidate was invited to a Sabbath dinner at a restaurant on a Friday night where congregants were able to get to know the candidate informally.
Then, the candidates were asked to lead a Friday night Sabbath service and to prepare an adult learning class program for Saturday morning.
“The board then met after we had asked the congregation for their opinions,” said Hornung. “We weighed the pros and cons of each, and Rabbi Zylberberg was the unanimous choice of the entire board.”
The synagogue hired Zylberberg in mid-July, only a few months after starting their search. Currently, he lives in Westerville, but travels to Lima frequently for monthly services, as well as other activities.
“Rabbi Zylberberg is so personable, and visits our sick people, comes midweek for a funeral if necessary, and has been very engaging and easy to work with,” said Hornung.
Zylberberg is also enjoying his new congregation. “They were very welcoming and an interested group,” he said. “It’s a small congregation but very active for its size.”
For Zylberberg, coming into a new congregation means that he has to learn its culture, while continuing to teach them.
“The custom of the place — that is very important in Judaism,” he said. “Congregations have ways of doing things and the customs of the place are very important. You have to be very cognizant and appreciative of the customs of the place. … If I don’t listen, the people won’t follow.”
While a rabbi does similar things to a pastor, Zylberberg sees his main job as teaching.
“A rabbi is primarily a teacher of the Torah,” he explained. “My main job is to interpret and teach Torah principles. The Torah is the Jewish Bible.”
He also feels that the synagogue is not just a place to meet together, but it is more than that. “Religion is way more. It is giving meaning to people’s lives,” he said.
Fortunately, Zylberberg sees the congregants at Temple Beth Israel-Shaare Zedek as a very healthy congregation.
“In a lot of ways, Lima is in way better shape than other congregations I’ve been at,” he said. “I can’t give a reason, but I think they have a certain maturity. I’m not talking about age, but personality, that makes them very healthy.”
The congregants are equally happy with Zylberberg.
“We respect him and are enjoying his humor, wisdom and knowledge. Everyone likes him. ... He is an excellent teacher, as well as pulpit rabbi, and comforts those in mourning or who are sick. We are happy that we selected a retired rabbi who is still willing to come to us for a weekend — when all the major holidays occur.”