Temple Reyim began a new chapter with the arrival of their new rabbi, Benjamin Shalva, on August 1. A native of Milwaukee, Rabbi Shalva was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2008 and recently served as the Assistant Rabbi of Congregation Olam Tikvah in Fairfax, Virginia. Rabbi Shalva comes to Reyim with his wife, Sara, and two children, Lev (4) and Avital (1), and will become only the fourth rabbi in the history of the temple.
Did you always know you would end up a rabbi?
It certainly wasn’t the plan at the beginning. I grew up in a Classical Reform temple in Milwaukee and didn’t seriously get into Judaism until I was in my 20s. I was in to Zen meditation and Buddhism, did foreign study in India, Nepal, and Tibet, and went out to California to dabble in professional theater.
What got you into Judaism, and eventually the Rabbinate?
When I was living on the west coast, I realized that I wanted to get into Torah study and into observing Shabbat. Both of those things don’t really go along with the theater scene, and I gradually got out of that lifestyle and more into Jewish learning and practice. This caused me to join the WUJS (The World Union of Jewish Students) program in Israel in 2001-2.
What was your year in Israel like?
It was great. I met my wife, Sara. She was on Project Otzma, I was on WUJS… it’s a good story. I sang in a choir with Amos Oz’s wife, and I experienced real populist, grass-roots Judaism in a tiny “shul” in a room at the Mercaz Klitah (absorption center) I was living in. It was so far away from my experience in a cathedral-like Midwestern temple, and it got me into Judaism more intensely than before. The rabbi who was running WUJS is still my rabbi in many ways.
And then you went right to Rabbinical School?
I entered HUC (Hebrew Union College, the Reform movement’s seminary) in Jerusalem in 2002-3, and came back to New York with Sara the next year. I began to realize that HUC really wasn’t for me, and I switched to JTS (The Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s seminary) after my second year. This was a big leap. I think I had been in a Conservative synagogue maybe twice in my life before I began at JTS.
Was that a hard switch to make?
In some ways. I had a lot of learning to do about Conservative Judaism. The good news is that I think the Conservative Movement is fantastic, and I was lucky because I didn’t have any personal baggage or memories about the “old ways” of the movement. I was able to learn about what it means to be a Conservative Jew from congregants and from my own experience.
What didn’t you learn at JTS that you had to figure out on the job as a Rabbi?
We never talked about what it means to be an “institution” in school. What is institutional identity? How do institutions go through cycles, and how do their identities evolve over time? What is cyclical about the life of synagogues? These questions are all fundamentally important to the job of being a Rabbi. When I was an Assistant Rabbi in Fairfax, Virginia, it took me a while to understand how much the history of the institution affected my work and my congregants.
Is there a particular kind of programming you’d like to emphasize at Reyim?
In Fairfax I was really into the idea of expanding social justice and social action programming at the shul. I felt like that was important work, and also that the Conservative Movement, to its detriment, has not spent a lot of time focusing their efforts in those areas. The idea of tikkun olam (repairing the world) is very powerful to American Jews today, and we should be doing more. We all know the song Al Shlosha Devarim. It’s no secret; gemilut chadasim (acts of lovingkindness) is one of our three pillars. There’s a lot of talk about making Conservative Judaism relevant in today’s world. This is an easy way to help create that sense of relevancy.
How did you get to Temple Reyim?
I was looking at shuls in a few places, but Reyim quickly became the first choice. Boston is a great city and a great place to be Jewish. Reyim is fairly traditional in a ritual sense, and is also a low-key, easygoing, haimish kind of place. I was very impressed with Reyim’s rich identity, its past filled with great Rabbis and committed congregants, and its firmly-established culture of learning. At Reyim there is a clear desire to grow as a shul and to be a relevant place where Judaism can happen. It is also a place that is willing to be creative. Some synagogues want you to come in and do exactly what the institution has always done. Others, like Reyim, want to grow and evolve. I am looking forward to a fascinating journey with the congregation.
What do you do when you aren’t on the job?
I love spending time with my wife and two kids. I write music, and I love the outdoors. I’m hoping to get up to the White Mountains at some point before things get going for the chagim, but I’m not sure if my schedule will allow for it.
Boston is a pretty intense sports city. Are you ready?
Growing up, for some reason, I always liked the Red Sox. I think that will be easy to get into them again. It’s going to be harder with the Patriots; I’m a huge Packers fan.
Are you as sick of Brett Favre as I am?
He’s a good guy- there are no hard feelings there. But Aaron Rodgers is fun to watch.
If you’d like to meet Rabbi Shalva and help welcome him to Boston, come to Temple Reyim’s Open House on August 15!