Rochester-born rabbi helps synagogues heal

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Religious institutions across the country—excepting Evangelical churches and Orthodox synagogues—in recent decades have seen a significant drop in membership. Many have closed or consolidated. And yet, Americans who retain a religious affiliation report it to be an important source of meaning and fulfillment in their lives. 

Are there ways religious congregations can arrest or reverse the downward trend? Are there steps congregations can take to better connect with and keep their own members? 

One clergyman who grew up in Rochester thinks so, and it’s a most unusual work experience that informs his view. 

After serving a Reform Jewish congregation in New York City for 16 years, Rabbi David Katz chose to become an “interim” rabbi. Interim rabbis are specially trained to help heal congregations that have grown dysfunctional. In the past 10 years, Katz has served coast-to-coast at eight different congregations, including in Atlanta, Long Island, Morristown, N.J., Pittsburgh, Westchester County, and San Francisco. Recently, he served in Baltimore, which is where I last saw him; he’s now in Albany.

This unusual experience has given Katz a singular perspective on the current state of synagogue life, and religiosity in America, generally—his training as an interim rabbi was largely conducted by Protestant ministers who face similar issues in their own churches. Now, Katz is eager to share his insights into some of the reasons why congregations decline, and what they might do to overcome the national trend.  

But first, some background on the rabbi.

Rabbi David A. Katz

Katz was born in Rochester in 1953. His father, Meyer Katz, owned National Advertising Specialties Corp. His mother, Betty Katz, taught English literature at the University of Rochester and later became a full professor at Monroe Community College.

I have been friends with Katz since we both attended Brighton middle school. In those days, Katz, a lanky teen, was widely admired for his sense of humor and physical comedy, including improvisation and impressions. In high school, he directed plays and delighted spectators as a varsity pole vaulter. At graduation, he was voted class valedictorian. Later, Katz and I co-edited a book, “Reading Between the Lines: New Stories from the Bible” (Jason Aronson, 1996), a collection of stories—in Hebrew midrash—written by contemporary authors.

At Northwestern University, Katz earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theatre, with a specialty in directing. He then went to Hebrew Union College, the Reform Jewish seminary, where he received master’s degrees in Hebrew letters and Hebrew education. In 1981, he was ordained a rabbi, and later was awarded the degree of doctor of divinity.

Katz began his career serving congregations in Boston, Toronto, and Fredericksburg, Va. Then followed 16 years at Temple Israel on Staten Island, one year as senior scholar-in-residence at Wagner College, and stints as a pulpit rabbi in Binghamton and a Jewish educator San Diego.

He is married to Nancy Modlin Katz, an accomplished artist. Her paintings on paper and canvas, and her painted ceramics, have won many juried competitions. The couple has two grown children and a granddaughter.

“Lavender Farm,” Ojai, Calif., pastel by Nancy Modlin Katz.

In mid-career, Katz became interested in synagogue dynamics. At a rabbinic convention, he took a class with Rabbi Edward Friedman, an expert in family systems theory. “Friedman was really the founder of using family therapy to interpret church and synagogue life,” Katz says.

From that, Katz learned about the opportunity to become an interim rabbi, and soon took the specialized training for that role. “You learn about change management,” he explains. “You learn how the history and culture of a congregation are all part of the picture and how divisions within a congregation often come from the families of the leaders. You think you’re talking about an issue, but you’re talking about somebody’s personal problems. And often where there are factions, no matter what the issue might be, the factions just line up and can last for decades. These institutional conflicts must be recognized, brought to the surface, and talked about—very much like a therapist might.”

Synagogues seek an interim rabbi for two main reasons: either a much-admired, long-term rabbi has retired and the congregation wants time to re-envision its future, or a rabbi has resigned or been fired, often coinciding with political tensions in the congregation. In either case, the interim rabbi will serve for just one or two years and is prohibited by contract from being considered for a permanent position with that congregation.

Katz estimates that of the dozens of Reform rabbis who have taken the interim training, he is among the top five in terms of number of congregations served.

He’s also, from the start, been successful. 

In an article entitled, “We Had an Interim Rabbi and It Was a Great Success,” the president of Congregation Beth Emek in Pleasanton, Calif.—Katz’s first interim posting—described their brief time with Katz while they searched for a new, permanent rabbi as a “summer romance.” Katz, she wrote, “hit the ground running,” sparked an “increase in engagement,” and “took the heat” for making needed but controversial changes. When Katz’s two-year term was up, she wrote, “I was touched by the outpouring of affection, especially from people who, when our longtime rabbi left, swore they would never like another rabbi again.”

Ten years and eight synagogues later, as a sought-after interim rabbi, Katz is still helping congregations change and improve their institutional engagement. Currently, he serves at B’nai Sholom Reform Congregation in Albany.

Following is an edited version of my recent phone interview with Katz.

ROCHESTER BEACON: I have to ask—before we get into the religious topics—how have you managed to move so many times and still keep your marriage intact?

DAVID KATZ (laughing): Well, I have the great advantage of having a wife who’s an artist. Nancy finds beauty wherever we go and creates a studio wherever she is; she’s very flexible. Moving around as we do, though, has caused us to ask the questions: How do we ground ourselves? How do we find stability? Many are grounded and centered by their home and familiar territory, but we have no home base.

“Napa Afternoon,” pastel of vineyard near Pleasanton, Calif., by Nancy Modlin Katz

ROCHESTER BEACON: So, how do you ground yourselves?  

KATZ: One way people do it is with family and these days everyone is FaceTiming and Zooming. But one can also ground oneself in what is ineffable, untouchable, and unknowable, by becoming more God-centered—because God will travel with you wherever you go in this world, and into the next. That was the great revolution in Jewish tradition: that we are not only grounded in place and substance. As a rabbinic student, I climbed Mount Sinai. Do you know what’s at the top of Mount Sinai? 

ROCHESTER BEACON: This is just a guess, but, Starbucks?  

KATZ (laughing): That’s very funny! No, it’s not Starbucks. There are two little rooms up there—at least there were when I was there—a chapel and a mosque, but there was nothing Jewish there. 

ROCHESTER BEACON:  What do you take from that?

KATZ:  What I take is that, while Jews certainly do have places that are holy—the Western Wall and Jerusalem, to be sure—yet if we wandered for 40 years in the desert and can’t put something even on the top of Mount Sinai, then clearly what we have is a transportable religion, and therefore a transportable grounding.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Even so, it must be tough to move so often.

KATZ: It can be stressful procuring a new position just about every year—especially during COVID—but one of the pleasures of being an interim rabbi is that there are few positions in the world where you can speak the truth without fear of consequences. As an interim rabbi, you are pre-fired—there’s a limit to your term—so the congregation knows that whatever you say is not because you have hidden motives but meant only for their benefit.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Let’s talk about your former home. Did growing up in Rochester, and specifically at Temple B’rith Kodesh, influence your work as a rabbi?

KATZ: It did, definitely. We came of age in the ’60s, a decade that began to question everything about political, social and religious life, and Temple B’rith Kodesh typified that time. The Temple was partly revolutionary—they tried new things like creative services—and yet they were also ensconced in the ’50s and upheld the conventions; few questioned, for example, whether they would have a bar or bat mitzvah service. I came to appreciate the conventions, but I’m also one who likes to think outside the box. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: Earning a bachelor’s and a master’s in theatre was sort of outside the box for someone planning a career in the rabbinate. What was your thinking there?

KATZ: I believed theater could be used as an educational tool, as a bridge from culture to religion, for assimilated Jews, and had the advantage of being able to speak to the heart as well as the mind. I was influenced, too, by (German playwright) Bertolt Brecht, who thought that theater and art should be used as a social tool as opposed to art for art’s sake. I entered rabbinical school with the intention of utilizing my theater background as one more strategy to bring Jews back to their tradition.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Are there ways you’ve been able as a rabbi to use your training in theatre?

KATZ: It’s made me proficient in text analysis, storytelling, and the ability to know when it’s time to exit—that is, when you’ve lost your listener. These are all very important skills for a rabbi.

ROCHESTER BEACON: So, let’s get to the big question: From the time you grew up in Rochester until now—this half-century—we’ve seen a significant drop in church and synagogue membership—at least in the liberal denominations—across the country. At Temple B’rith Kodesh, for example, membership over the past 20 years has fallen by one-third from about 1,200 families to 800. Two other congregations—unable due to declining membership to keep up their own buildings—now rent space from B’rith Kodesh.

Is this a trend you’ve personally seen around the country, both with synagogues and churches?

KATZ: It is, definitely. On a recent conference call I did with other interim rabbis, five out of the 10 were shepherding a congregation through a merger. I just did that in Baltimore—helped merge two congregations. Both of them were among the oldest Reform congregations in the country and the congregation I started with had a building that was built for 1,000 families but now has around 200 families—so that speaks to the point that membership is declining.

ROCHESTER BEACON: I’m sure that decline is due, in part, to larger social forces, but have you found there are things congregations do themselves that contribute to a decline?

KATZ: Well, I’ve certainly seen absurdities built into congregational life that, unfortunately, we have come to take for granted. We almost don’t notice them anymore. And I’ve seen the same failures over and over again.

ROCHESTER BEACON: Examples of “absurdities”?

KATZ: The absurdity of thinking that communal life can be achieved by everybody coming to a building for a few hours a week, for some simply to stand, sit, recite prayers and schmooze a bit—and then think that will create religious consciousness to last through the week. The absurdity of saying of a congregation “we are a family” when, with any congregation of more than 75 families it doesn’t make any sense unless there has been no turnover and everyone really does know each other. The absurdity of defining a congregation’s health in terms of how the building is maintained, the number of staff, the number of programs delivered, how glossy the PR is. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: Those could certainly promote a decline in membership.

KATZ: Here’s another absurdity: that people might come to church or synagogue twice a year, spend $2,000—or whatever membership costs—to have their name on a list and we don’t even know why they have joined, what they’re looking for, or who they are as human beings. 

ROCHESTER BEACON: What do you see as at the root of the problem?

 Rabbi Katz in his study at B’nai Sholom in Albany.

KATZ: I think, at base, we have a consumerist approach to congregational life. Temples and churches create programs and services with zippy titles and then in the bulletin advertise these using language best suited for television commercials: “This program is new! You’ll really love this!  We want to see you there!” Then we judge success by how many people show up. But that mentality and definition of success is antithetical to a life of serving others and finding purpose. And yet that’s the congregational life we take for granted; it’s about being proud of the gloss we create and not appreciating the gifts each member has to offer.

ROCHESTER BEACON: And what is it that congregations could be doing?

KATZ: To begin we have to get to know the people who are coming to us and for that the way we do synagogue life needs to be re-taught. I remember when I first began to date, my Dad said, “David, I’m going to give you a piece of advice. When you go out, talk about the girl. Find out about her. Ask her questions about who she is. If you do, you’re likely to get a second date.”  (laughs)  

But we’ve got synagogues that do nothing of the sort. Look at their websites, it’s all “This is who we are. This is ourhistory. This is how you can donate to us.” There’s no concern at all for the person at the other end. We have to learn to ask the congregant, “Who are you?” This is how you get a second date, and how a synagogue or church moves into a relationship with a congregant.

ROCHESTER BEACON: So, it’s not about the congregation providing services to the member but instead getting to know the member?

KATZ: In essence, yes. We have to stop thinking of the institution as serving people with programs and events and hoping people will show up. Instead, we need to actually know who people are in order to form relationships. 

We’re not in a shtetl (small village) or kibbutz anymore where you know somebody from the beginning of their life. People in a congregation are often strangers and so the aim has to be to understand and appreciate them and then allow them to act out within the institution the deepest and noblest aspirations that they have within them. It might be heart disease and supporting the American Heart Association, or treatment of animals and a concern for animal welfare. It could be anything. But it’s a matter of redefining in the broadest way what the synagogue’s purpose is; it’s not to serve up programs. First and foremost, it’s to understand the member and then wed the religious tradition with that person’s goals to foster meaningful connection and self-discovery.

If Jewish life in America is to thrive, and church life as well, it’s going to need leaders who uphold the conventions but who, ultimately, must be unconventional in their thinking and have the courage to think outside the box.

ROCHESTER BEACON: We’ve talked at length but haven’t mentioned God. Where does God fit in here?  

KATZ: In our daily lives, at least in the Northeast—it’s different in different parts of the country—God is just not part of the conversation at the lunch table. And yet I find my congregants want to open up a discussion about a personal relationship to God. 

What a synagogue and church can offer are the deepest reasons for why important issues matter. Why does a human rights issue matter in the context of my tradition? Why be good at all? Talking about a person’s deepest hopes, their worst fears, the purposes to which they devote their lives, the things that they would not just live for but die for—opening up the conversation to these aspects of a person’s life is very much appreciated. And to see God as part of the picture allows a more comprehensive view of the world. Religion offers the opportunity to live a life that is transcendent.

ROCHESTER BEACON: I don’t want to end without asking about your hometown. With all your moving around, do you try to get back to Rochester much? Any particular places you like to go?

KATZ:  Well, I go to the cemetery to visit my parents. And there’s Wegmans. But, you know, Wegmans is all over now. When I walk into a Wegmans, wherever it is, I always tell the cashier that I’m from Rochester, New York, where it all began—and they look at me quizzically because often they don’t know the connection between Wegmans and Rochester.

I do consider Rochester to be my home place and have a deep love for Rochester. But in another respect, I am a rolling stone and I appreciate new places, new people and new challenges.

Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author of “In the Neighborhood” and “The Attachment Effect” is Washington correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. He can be reached at [email protected].

2 thoughts on “Rochester-born rabbi helps synagogues heal

  1. I greatly appreciate Rabbi Katz’ insights, especially, re. causes for diminishing numbers of members of church and synagogues. blessings, deni mack

  2. Fascinating article Peter & filled with some very cogent thoughts about the reasons for the decline in mainstream religious communities (and perhaps the increase in those that offer a different experience). Another excellent piece of journalism connected to someone from BHS.

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