New Rabbi Takes Helm
at Temple Emanuel
Rabbi Justin Kerber, who will succeed Rabbi Joseph Rosenbloom as Rabbi of Temple Emanuel, tried law for five years in the Boston area. And then he shifted professions, spending the next five years (one of those years in Israel) at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.
The rabbi, who was ordained in 2007, is enjoying his new role. His first job was as Director of Hillel at the University of Georgia in Athens until he heard about the opening at Temple Emanuel. He seized the opportunity to work in a small and intimate congregation and, at the same time, return to his Midwest roots.
His route to the rabbinate was a bit circuitous. After graduating from high school in Iowa City, IW, Kerber received his B.A. degree from Columbia University in 1991 and his J.D. from Boston College Law School in Newton, MA. In 1996, he joined the Bar of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts before deciding to become a rabbi.
Rabbi Kerber said he’s excited by the chance to provide spiritual leadership for a congregation that is honoring its past while looking ahead to its future. “I’m also grateful to the Temple Emanuel family for its faith in me. St. Louis is a wonderful city. I’m so impressed with the Jewish facilities and groups such as the JCC and all the Jewish Federation agencies, programs and services on the Millstone Campus. This is clearly a community that takes a lot of pride in itself and really wants to be a leader among Jewish communities.”
Rabbi Kerber is married to Hope, a professional educator who has extensive experience with tutoring special-needs children. They have a 4-year old son, Eli.
Why St. Louis?
It’s a wonderful city with a great Jewish community. It also has a great reputation as a city of well-kept really good secrets. Since I grew up in Iowa City, it was appealing to return to my Midwestern roots. Also, I had this connection to St. Louis through a number of friendships. Some of the finest people I studied with in Rabbinical School were from St. Louis including Mike Satz, who’s a rabbi in San Diego, and Rebecca Milder, who’s in Chicago. Robyn Faintich, also from St. Louis, is another friend who I met in Athens. So, when my wife and I saw that Temple Emanuel was part of the rabbinic search process, we got excited. To learn more about St. Louis, I tapped my network of friends. In addition, we learned a lot specifically about the temple. Obviously, we liked what we read and heard. We went through the regular interview process and I feel so fortunate to have been chosen.
What piqued your interest in Temple Emanuel particularly?
It’s a place that has a new sense of self. In the course of the merger negotiations with Temple Israel, Temple Emanuel stepped back and took a close look at itself. It realized that it has its own identity –intimacy and the fact that it’s small scale are just some of the things that make it unique. The building is unique. Architecturally, it’s a visual expression of the soul of the place. It’s magnificent. It provides a warmth and also an excitement. One really gets a certain first impression when walking into the sanctuary; I really liked the first impression this place gave me. You might say I fell in love at first sight. I hope to preserve this excitement. Another unique feature is Malachi, the African-American who is non-Jewish and is our leader of song or hazan. Also, if Malaki is the soul of our congregation, Joe Rosenbloom is the heart of the place. I intend to pick up where Rabbi Rosenbloom left off.
What exactly do you mean where Rabbi Rosenbloom left off?
This congregation is newly-energized. We have a new president David Sherman who has great ideas and is very committed to our mission. We will be honoring our classical roots. I don’t intend to make any wholesale changes right away. At the same time, it’s a new era and a new century and this congregation is ready to take a look at what’s happening in the community and in the Reform community in general and the Jewish world. We want to be part of these trends.
What are your goals at this point?
My mission right now is to take a look at who we are, what we do and what we’re here to do. We’ll begin with the big ideas first. Once we have the big picture then we’ll begin filling in the blanks with why, what and how. The immediate thing for me is for the congregation and me to get to know one another. We have 260 family units. We’d like to grow and involve more young adults and families with young children.
Based on your Hillel experience, it sounds like one of your strengths is how well you relate to young people.
My vision for Hillel was a set of overlapping circles where Jewish students could not only socialize together, but also advocate for, educate on, and engage in constructive dialogue about Israel; empower themselves to participate in Jewish living and learning to the best of their ability, and pursue justice in the Athens community and beyond. This experience will be relevant to his rabbinate here.
To attract young people to Temple Emanuel, we hope to use a joint approach. One way is outreach…recruiting people and bringing them in our front door and into our building. The second is engagement – appealing to young people by meeting them on their own terms and offering them things relevant to their interests. In Athens, I created something called JBIZ, where Jewish students met with Jewish business leaders from Athens and Atlanta and talked about their companies, new hires and ethical questions relating to their businesses. Of course, all this had a Jewish slant. This was relevant to the students because finding a job after college is top of mind. So I thought, hey, why don’t we see what we can do to help students think about their careers and future and throw in the Jewish angle.
What are you most proud of in your former Hillel role?
I am most proud of JBIZ and the role I played within the context of the University. Before I arrived, the University didn’t even know what Hillel was. So, I managed to plug Hillel into the importance of the University and their mission of offering higher education. To engage Jewish students who were only tangentially connected to Judaism, we went to the fraternities and sororities. We did some peer-to-peer groups in other cultural circles that excited the students with discussions and seminars. We also did a national day of service in honor of President Obama’s inauguration, hosted by the African-American Student Association. A batch of Hillel students were invited to participate. I gave a motivational speech at the beginning of the event and then we all got our hands dirty together cleaning up the grounds of a housing project. Some students helped at a local food bank and did other similar projects.
How do you think Temple Emanuel might change for the better in the future?
I heard from one of our congregants, Sam Heyman (when I visited him) who said it all:
“We didn’t build this temple for ourselves, but we built it for our children. It’s about their needs and their wants.”