Following the retirement of Rabbi Eric Wisnia after 42 years with Congregation Beth Chaim, Rabbi Brian Beal has stepped in as interim rabbi until June 30, 2020.
“Any time a beloved leader retires, he leaves a hole of some sort in the community and at the same time presents an opportunity to reimagine and create and grow,” says Beal, who has over 20 years of rabbinic experience under his belt.
“My job is to both fulfill all of the responsibilities that in this congregation a senior rabbi will do, in addition to helping the congregation use this period of transition as an opportunity to address challenges and as an opportunity for reenvisioning and growth,” Beal says.
The interim rabbi plays a unique role. “When a newer rabbi arrives, it is an opportunity for the clergy to look at worship and how to engage congregants where they are today—just by me being me and speaking about topics important to me,” Beal says.
He says he hopes to bring his passion for inclusion of all types of disabilities to expand access at Beth Chaim.
Sharing this passion, his sons, for their bar mitzvah projects, installed hearing loops that enable people with most hearing aids to connect directly to a microphone in their synagogue and a Jewish Federation building.
“It is as if the person speaking at the microphone is speaking directly into your ear,” Beal says.
He also mentions making large-print prayer books available and making sure students with learning challenges are as fully integrated as possible into the religious school.
Beal will also share his business background to help Beth Chaim’s leadership to “envision where they are and where they want to be going forward vis-à-vis membership outreach and member inreach.”
So how did a senior rabbi with 20 years of experience decide to become an interim rabbi—a position that he now loves?
Changes in the broader community in Upper Nyack, New York, where he had served for 13 years, prompted a decision on his part to leave Temple Beth Torah.
“We had a beautiful and warm and respectful relationship with my synagogue—we loved it there,” Beal says. “At the same time the demographics became such that it was important for the synagogue to look for opportunities to merge with other synagogues, and I didn’t want to be an obstacle to that.”
Beal’s decision to leave Beth Torah almost immediately opened a door for his wife, Naomi Adler, who was soon invited to be in the pool of candidates for CEO at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
They offered her the job, and she started work in May 2014, becoming the first woman to serve in that position in Philadelphia and, barring a short term appointment, the only woman CEO in the top 20 Jewish federations in the country—until Erika Rudin-Luria became CEO in Cleveland in January 2019.
“I believe in the importance of women serving as leaders in the Jewish community. She had this opportunity of being part of breaking the ceiling; and I thought it was important that I live my values at the same time that I offer them in a sermon,” Beal says.
“I had a son entering high school and two sons entering sixth grade,” he says. “I did not want them to get lost in the transition. I wanted them to have a fulltime parent attending to their needs, and I wanted that role.”
But when he was ready to return to work a couple of years later, he found himself in a Jewish community with little rabbinic turnover, except for a few positions as assistant or associate rabbis that were not appropriate for someone of his experience.
Some opportunities to return to fundraising came through, but, Beal says, “I love being a rabbi.”
This love led him to try out a new specialty in the Reform movement—interim rabbi—where “someone comes in and helps a congregation through the transition as they prepare to hire their settled [permanent] rabbi.”
“The interim rabbi has become professionalized and for many a career,” says Beal, who did intensive training with the Interim Ministry Network in August 2017.
Beal’s first position as interim rabbi was as replacement for a rabbi on maternity leave at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, and his second was in 2017-2018 at Temple Beth-El in Jersey City.
Born in Brooklyn, Beal moved to Hazlet at age 5. His father, now retired, represented manufacturers in the disposables industry (e.g., wax paper and aluminum cans). His mother did not work outside the home.
Recalling his youth playing Little League baseball and involved in scouting, Beal said, “I was blessed that my father was everything from my troop leader to baseball coach—it was that kind of family.”
His father had grown up as a secular Jew and his mother in an Orthodox Jewish household. After moving to New Jersey with their children, Beal said, “They needed to find a synagogue that met them halfway, so to speak, but that also had that inspiration, and Rabbi Henry Weiner [at the Reform synagogue, Temple Shalom in Aberdeen, NJ] was an extraordinarily charismatic, warm and welcoming rabbi. That’s what attracted them to that community and that connection lasted for many years.”
Describing the Jewish practice of his family—sending their children to religious school and practicing the holidays—he says, “Absolutely Jewish values and Jewish practice was part of our family household but certainly not in an intense, observant way.”
Talking about what drew him to the clergy, Beal uses the word “calling,” a word prevalent among non-Jewish clergy but not usually in the Jewish community.
Even as a young child, he says, “I had a calling to really be engaged in active Jewish living in my synagogue.” Inspired by Rabbi Weiner, he says, “I was one of those who loved going to Sunday school. I found my home, my comfort, and my inspiration in the synagogue and Jewish living.”
In high school he was president of his youth group, and religious and cultural vice president of the regional Reform Jersey Federation of Temple Youth.
At Emory University, Beal was active in the campus Hillel, which served all Jewish students, then started the Reform Jewish Student Committee, which, he says, “became a major campus organization for liberal [i.e., non-Orthodox] Jews.”
After graduating with a bachelor of arts in psychology in May 1986, Beal stayed at Emory another seven years as a professional fundraiser, rising from telefund coordinator to director of reunion giving.
While working, he served as advisor to the Reform Jewish Student Committee, taught religious school and advised the youth group at Temple Sinai in Sandy Springs, and was a member of Temple Emanu-el, also in Sandy Springs, where, Beal says, “Rabbi Stanley Davids became my mentor as I decided to apply to rabbinical school.”
Beal matriculated at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1993, spending his first year in Jerusalem and the next four years in Cincinnati, Ohio.
While he was in rabbinical school, Beal met his wife, then an assistant district attorney for Monroe County in Rochester, New York, where she successfully prosecuted cases of violence against women and children.
A year later Beal and Adler met again at the national biennial of the Union for Reform Judaism in Atlanta, where they started a long-distance relationship between Cincinnati and Rochester. A year and a half later they got engaged.
Beal recalls asking Adler what she wanted to do in the long term, and her response was either a district attorney or the chief executive officer of a national nonprofit.
He strongly suggested she needed fundraising experience, and in 1997 she heeded his advice and accepted a job as director of the Community Relations Council and Women’s Division of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton, only an hour from Cincinnati.
The couple married in June 1998, the same month Beal was ordained as a rabbi, and in July moved to Manalapan, where he became associate rabbi at Temple Shaari Emeth.
He was particularly proud of his work with youth and adult education programming and with intermarried couples, and of the program he established in partnership with the Jewish Family Services to support Jews in recovery and their loved ones. From 1999 to 2001 Adler worked as director of development at Rutgers University’s Bildner Center for the Study of Jewish Life.
In July 2001 Beal started what became a 13-year gig at Temple Beth Torah in Upper Nyack, NY. In Rockland, he launched “Shaareinu,” a nationally recognized initiative to involve people with disabilities, special needs, and other issues; partnered with interfaith clergy and congregations to house the homeless, host 12-step groups, and assist hurricane victims; planned interfaith study and programming; and co-founded Rockland Unite, an initiative to bring together high school students from each of the Abrahamic religions—Muslims, Jews and Christians.
While Beal was at Temple Beth Torah, Adler became president and CEO of United Way of Rockland County in 2001, then in 2008 of United Way of Westchester and Putnam Counties.
Happy to once again be serving as an interim rabbi, Beal is excited about the relationship he is developing with Congregation Beth Chaim.
“I feel very blessed to be part of this congregation. It is an extraordinarily welcoming and engaged sacred community, with the best of values and ideals.”