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Picking a new rabbi? A new novel about a church shows how



(JTA) — About a decade ago, I served on my synagogue’s rabbinic search committee. Normally I am allergic to any activity at which minutes will be taken, but it was a great experience, thanks to the care and intelligence that my fellow committee members brought to the process. Flush with satisfaction for a job well done and probably a little full of ourselves, we even imagined other synagogues might learn from our example. We spoke about putting together a seminar, or perhaps a how-to book. 

No one, I recall, suggested turning the experience into a novel. 

That’s why I’m not Michelle Huneven, who this year published a novel about a church’s search for a new minister. I’ve been recommending it to anyone who wants to understand shul politics, or wants reassurance that Jews are just like everybody else, no more and no less.   

“Search” is narrated by Dana, a 50-something restaurant critic, former seminarian and once-active congregant at a Unitarian Universalist church in Arroyo, California, who is recruited to the search committee when the current pastor announces plans to retire. The book tracks the search process from in-house focus groups to Skype interviews with applicants to the finalists’ “candidating week” — what you and I might call “auditions.”  

Despite an unlikely premise for a mainstream novel, ”Search” is a smart, funny and enlightening book about contemporary religion, especially of the liberal, undogmatic variety that is typical of Unitarian Universalism and, well, much of non-Orthodox Judaism. It’s a worthy companion to “The New Rabbi,” Stephen Fried’s 2002 nonfiction book about a Philadelphia-area synagogue and its own search.

Huneven captures the impossible nature of a clergy person’s job, and especially the unrealistic expectation of congregations that want their spiritual leader to be all things to all people. Trying to narrow down what they are looking for, members of the search committee call out qualifications:

“‘Sermons with more spiritual depth and intellectual content,’ said Charlotte.

“‘Someone with an efficient, organized management style,’ said Belinda.” 

Wonders Dana: “Who didn’t want a warm presence with a progressive social conscience, the management skills of a corporate CEO, and the work-life boundaries of a New Age life coach?”

As the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly warns in its manual for search committees, searches founder “not because of a dearth of qualified candidates but because the congregation’s expectations of rabbinic candidates is unrealistic.” 

Regular synagogue-goers will recognize the tensions in the novel between the older members and the newcomers, between boomers and millennials, between theists and humanists. At one point, the assistant minister remembers when a midweek service led by a student intern began attracting a core of people who weren’t showing up on Sundays. 

“You can’t have two congregations, no matter how small one is,” she explains. “It sets up a potential schism.”

Clergy searches are fraught because nearly every congregant regards themself as the rabbi’s boss. On the flip side, members grow attached to longtime rabbis, even when they outlast their changing congregations. In “Search,” the senior minister has been with the church for eight years, but remains under the shadow of his beloved predecessor, who had served for 28 years. (I was married by the “new rabbi” at my wife’s family’s synagogue, who at that point had been on the job for about 20 years.)

“Search” isn’t a satire, exactly, but Huneven has fun with the political and social winds that are blowing through liberal denominations. Some of the congregants are set on hiring a woman after almost four decades of male leadership. “But we can’t say that explicitly,” Dana warns. Another character is angling to be the head of the national church association, “though it’s not such a clear shot for straight white guys these days,” says a church consultant. 

Unitarian Universalist, or UU, churches are also staunchly secular, which means the clergy don’t have to express a belief in God, let alone Jesus or a strict theology. That brings with it the paradox of choice: “Our ministers can be gay, trans, Buddhist, atheist, any race, or same-sex adoptive parents with mixed-race families. You name it,” says a member of the committee. “That’s the future. Everybody’s in.”

I would guess that a lot of liberal synagogues would love to be as open and diverse as that, but bump up against the reality that, despite a growing number of Jews by choice and Jews of color, synagogues tend to be white, upper-middle-class and heteronormative. As for theology, rare is the synagogue that doesn’t want its rabbi to “have been inspired to serve God,” as the R.A. handbook puts it; on the other hand, search committees disagree about how much theology and “God talk” they want from the bima.  

And yet, even the most secular UU church or most liberal synagogue pursues the sacred in the ways they gather, worship, mourn and serve the community. As the squabbles intensify in “Search,” one older member of the committee laments that they’ve lost sight of their goal: how the search for a new clergyperson is a “a sacred task that will grow us spiritually.”

During my time on the search committee, I saw the sausage-making of synagogue life. Compromise is always hard. Even the most thorough, transparent search process is bound to disappoint someone.

And “Search” the novel can be, at times, as tedious as a real-life rabbinic search, as characters deliberate over candidates at painstaking length. But Huneven understands that holiness is not just a matter of reading from a prayer book or studying from a text, but lives in the way people create communities and choose their leaders. It’s a messy process, but if you do it in good faith and in a spirit of humility, you might end up with a pretty great rabbi.

The post Picking a new rabbi? A new novel about a church shows how appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Phyllis Pollock died at home Sunday September 3, 2023 in Winnipeg, after a courageous lifetime battle with cancer.
Phyllis was a mother of four: Gary (Laura), daughter Randi, Steven (deceased in 2010) (Karen), and Robert. Phyllis also had two grandchildren: Lauren and Quinn.
Born in Fort Frances, Ontario on February 7, 1939, Phyllis was an only child to Ruby and Alex Lerman. After graduating high school, Phyllis moved to Winnipeg where she married and later divorced Danny Pollock, the father of her children. She moved to Beverly Hills in 1971, where she raised her children.
Phyllis had a busy social life and lucrative real estate career that spanned over 50 years, including new home sales with CoastCo. Phyllis was the original sales agent for three buildings in Santa Monica, oceanfront: Sea Colony I, Sea Colony II, and Sea Colony. She was known as the Sea Colony Queen. She worked side by side with her daughter Randi for about 25 years – handling over 600 transactions, including sales and leases within the three phases of Sea Colony alone.
Phyllis had more energy than most people half her age. She loved entertaining, working in the real estate field, meeting new and interesting people everyday no matter where she went, and thrived on making new lifelong friends. Phyllis eventually moved to the Sea Colony in Santa Monica where she lived for many years before moving to Palm Desert, then Winnipeg.
After battling breast cancer four times in approximately 20 years, she developed metastatic Stage 4 lung cancer. Her long-time domestic partner of 27 years, Joseph Wilder, K.C., was the love of her life. They were never far apart. They traveled the world and went on many adventures during their relationship. During her treatment, Phyllis would say how much she missed work and seeing her clients. Joey demonstrated amazing strength, love, care, and compassion for Phyllis as her condition progressed. He was her rock and was by her side 24/7, making sure she had the best possible care. Joey’s son David was always there to support Phyllis and to make her smile. Joey’s other children, Sheri, Kenny, Joshua and wife Davina, were also a part of her life. His kids would Facetime Phyllis and include her during any of their important functions. Phyllis loved Joey’s children as if they were her own.
Thank you to all of her friends and family who were there to support her during these difficult times. Phyllis is now, finally, pain free and in a better place. She was loved dearly and will be greatly missed. Interment took place in Los Angeles.

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Local News

Gwen Centre Creative Living Centre celebrates 35th anniversary



By BERNIE BELLAN Over 100 individuals gathered at the Gwen Secter Centre on Tuesday evening, July 18 – under the big top that serves as the venue for the summer series of outdoor concerts that is now in its third year at the centre.
The occasion was the celebration of the Gwen Secter Centre’s 35th anniversary. It was also an opportunity to honour the memory of Sophie Shinewald, who passed away at the age of 106 in 2019, but who, as recently as 2018, was still a regular attendee at the Gwen Secter Centre.
As Gwen Secter Executive Director Becky Chisick noted in her remarks to the audience, Sophie had been volunteering at the Gwen Secter Centre for years – answering the phone among other duties. Becky remarked that Sophie’s son, Ed Shinewald, had the phone number for the Gwen Secter Centre stored in his phone as “Mum’s work.”

Raquel Dancho (left), Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St.Paul, and Nikki Spigelman, President, Gwen Secter Centre

Remarks were also delivered by Raquel Dancho, Member of Parliament for Kildonan-St. Paul, who was the only representative of any level of government in attendance. (How times have changed: I remember well the steadfast support the former Member of the Legislature for St. John’s, Gord Mackintosh, showed the Gwen Secter Centre when it was perilously close to being closed down. And, of course, for years, the area in which the Gwen Secter Centre is situated was represented by the late Saul Cherniack.)
Sophie Shinewald’s granddaughter, Alix (who flew in from Chicago), represented the Shinewald family at the event. (Her brother, Benjamin, who lives in Ottawa, wasn’t able to attend, but he sent a pre-recorded audio message that was played for the audience.)
Musical entertainment for the evening was provided by a group of talented singers, led by Julia Kroft. Following the concert, attendees headed inside to partake of a sumptuous assortment of pastries, all prepared by the Gwen Secter culinary staff. (And, despite my asking whether I could take a doggy bag home, I was turned down.)

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Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station



This is a developing story.

(JTA) — Palestinian gunmen killed four people and wounded four in a terror attack at a gas station near the West Bank settlement of Eli, the Israeli army reported.

An Israeli civilian returning fire at the scene of the attack on Tuesday killed one of the attackers, who emerged from a vehicle, and two others fled.

Kan, Israel’s public broadcaster, said one of those wounded was in serious condition. The gunmen, while in the vehicle, shot at a guard post at the entry to the settlement, and then continued to the gas station which is also the site of a snack bar. A nearby yeshiva went into lockdown.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant announced plans to convene a briefing with top security officials within hours of the attack. Kan reported that there were celebrations of the killing in major West Bank cities and in the Gaza Strip, initiated by terrorist groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas said the shooting attack Tuesday was triggered by the Jenin raid.

The shooting comes as tensions intensify in the West Bank. A day earlier, Israeli troops raiding the city of Jenin to arrest accused terrorists killed five people.

The Biden administration spoke out over the weekend against Israel’s plans to build 4,000 new housing units for Jewish settlers in the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also finalized plans to  transfer West Bank building decisions to Bezalel Smotrich, the extremist who is the finance minister. Smotrich has said he wants to limit Palestinian building and expand settlement building.

Kan reported that the dead terrorist was a resident of a village, Urif, close to Huwara, the Palestinian town where terrorists killed two Israeli brothers driving through in February. Settlers retaliated by raiding the village and burning cars and buildings.

The post Palestinian gunmen kill 4 Israelis in West Bank gas station appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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