By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Rabbi Donald Rossoff’s role as an interim senior rabbi is to help congregations transition between the rabbi that was and the rabbi that’s going to be.
The 66-year-old rabbi has returned to Temple Sholom on North Lake Shore Drive for a year-long appointment as interim senior rabbi, temporarily replacing Senior Rabbi Edwin Goldberg who departed for a synagogue near Houston.
Rossoff’s experience at Temple Sholom will be familiar to him. He came to the 125-year-old Temple Sholom 35 years ago as a new rabbi just out of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He departed for his own pulpit in 1990 in northern New Jersey.
“A whole generation has passed away and more than one generation has come to be,” Rossoff said. “I am coming home to a community which had done so much for me and which I hope to pay back in my own way.”
During his first tenure, Rossoff’s childhood rabbi from St. Paul, was the then senior Rabbi Fred Schwartz at Temple Sholom. “It was just a tremendous opportunity, tremendous joy and tremendous growing opportunity to work with him,” Rossoff remembered.
Though there was much less tradition – rabbis for example didn’t wear yarmulkes—the temple has always “really mattered to people and made a difference in their lives.” He also said there has been an explosion of programming since his time at the temple.
When he was an assistant rabbi at Temple Sholom, it was a time of tremendous change for the Reform movement. What has not changed at Temple Sholom is the devotion of its membership, he said.
He has done the work of interim rabbi at four other synagogues — in Pittsburgh, Franklin Lakes, N.J, Framingham, Mass and Evanston where he served the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation. Before that, he was senior rabbi at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, N.J. for 25 years.
As an interim rabbi for a different denomination such as Reconstructionism, he said, “There was nothing too radically different that I had difficulty adjusting to. As an interim rabbi, I am aware that the congregation belongs to the people, not the rabbi. I am there to serve the people, not my own theology or particular practices. My year at JRC was a blessing.”
Each congregation he has served “has its own unique way of doing things, its own musical repertoire, its own culture and expectations on and off the pulpit. It has been a happy adventure becoming a part of different communities, learning from them as they are learning from me.”
Rossoff’s plan at Temple Sholom “is to create a balance between continuity and change which includes the loss of their previous rabbi and the effect that has on people’s souls and hearts.”
He has the pleasure, he said, of working with an excellent clergy team at Sholom that includes Rabbi Shoshanah Conover, Associate Rabbi, and Assistant Rabbi Scott Gellman, Cantor Emerita Aviva Katzman and Cantor Sheera Ben-David. “I’m really getting to know them and helping them to do what they do and in the best way possible.”
The sense of continuity and stability he offers the congregation gives them “the real sense that there are wonderful and productive creative years ahead,” Rossoff said.
His longterm plan following his stint as interim senior rabbi is to become a marriage and family therapist, “helping couples and families through difficult times in life.”
Jeremy Perlin, Temple Sholom executive director, said that it’s rare to find someone to come in for a year with experience in that arrangement. “This isn’t his first intentional interim position,” Perlin said. “He’s done this kind of work plus he has a familiarity with the congregation. It’s unique and kind of a blessing.”
Rossoff welcomes this opportunity. “Being from different congregations, different communities with different challenges and opportunities, has been very meaningful and fulfilling to me.”