There was a moment shortly before Rabbi Brian Schuldenfrei accepted the position at Congregation Ner Tamid in July when his wife Deborah squeezed his hand. They were sitting in the car together after an evening at the synagogue, and from the parking lot on Crest Ridge Road in Rancho Palos Verdes they could see the lights of Los Angeles. In front of them stretched the city where they first met before living in Miami for the past three years.
The couple had spent enough time with the congregation over extended weekends during the nearly year-long interview process to feel at home. They liked it on the Hill and could envision sending their three young boys to the local schools here.
“It was a clear night and we felt like we could literally see the trajectory of our relationship. And she said, ‘This is bashert,’ meaning this is fated. This is where we’re supposed to be,” Schuldenfrei said in a recent interview from his office at Ner Tamid following the Jewish high-holiday celebrations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in September.
As the 38-year-old rabbi settled into his new position leading the South Bay’s largest synagogue since July. It’s become clear not only to his wife, who’s also an ordained rabbi, but to many congregants that his arrival was in fact fated in a very good way for a synagogue that’s been through some trying times in recent years.
“My sense from people is that they were really ready for it,” said Ami Berlin, director of education and youth activities, who’s worked at the synagogue for 22 years. “People feel really excited. It was great to hear people so happy with the rabbi. People like him a lot. It’s so refreshing. And to see the effort he puts into connecting with the teens and the young kids, it really is a meaningful connection.”
Schuldenfrei has come to lead Ner Tamid following the resignation of its previous rabbi, Isaac Jeret, in February 2012 facing accusations he misused discretionary funds for political purposes, first reported last year by the Jewish Journal. No criminal or civil prosecutions were brought against Jeret, who led the congregation for seven years. And the synagogue has not faced scrutiny of its tax-exempt status, but they did lose members, said board president Debra Schneiderman, who oversaw the transition.
“The community was definitely distraught and there was some divisiveness that needed to be addressed,” she said. “So when it came time to do the search for a rabbi it was clear that it needed to include the community.”
So they hired an interim rabbi for a year while they looked for a successor. With a search committee and focus groups of more than 200 people, they narrowed 50 candidates down to three, out of whom Schuldenfrei received 97 percent approval ratings. The congregation is now back to more than 500 members and a new energy has returned, she said.
Schneiderman, who’s been a member of the synagogue for 18 years, said the sense among the Jewish community here is they couldn’t be happier.
“He was very sensitive to what the community had gone through,” she said. “I find him to be very aware and very bright. He’s a good listener and he’s extremely easy to speak with.”
Founded in 1961 by Rabbi Bernard Wechsberg, Ner Tamid was led by several rabbis until Rabbi Ronald Shulman served for 20 years until 2004. The search that resulted in choosing Schuldenfrei was the most intensive in the congregation’s history and likely more lengthy than most clerical searches among other synagogues, say those familiar with the process.
“There’s this notion in Hebrew of cheshbon hanefesh, or soul searching,” Schuldenfrei said. “Through focus groups and meetings they decided what type of rabbi they wanted to hire. Therefore when I got here, while it was a synagogue that went through challenges, they had clarity now with who they were and where they wanted to be.”
What they got was a thoughtful young rabbi who greets people with a smile and a sense of compassion that’s immediately evident by anyone who meets him. Already he’s set up monthly discussions at the local Starbucks and taken an active role in the preschool and Hebrew study classes for young children.
“If it just becomes about services on Saturday we should close our doors,” he said. “The service is the service to people’s lives. I’m very fortunate to be a part of their lives at the greatest moments as well as some of the most trying times.”
Raised in Long Island, New York, Schuldenfrei said he grew up very connected to the Jewish faith, but it was not until attending college in Ohio, where he intended to become a lawyer, that he found his religious calling. He spent his junior year of college in Israel and decided to join the rabbinical. He said his role as a rabbi is much different than it might have been 20 years ago before computers and cell phones opened an infinite number of options for people.
“The world is literally at our fingertips and with that every attitude is a possibility,” he said. “I like to say we’re all Jews by choice, meaning there are plenty of options that are beautiful and speak to people. And Judaism by guilt doesn’t work either. If we tell people, ‘Well you must be Jewish because of what happened to our people,’ that doesn’t really work anymore. The joke of Jewish guilt is a joke that our kids are probably not going to understand.”
Since becoming rabbi at Ner Tamid, Schuldenfrei and his wife bought a home nearby. As a new resident he said the neighborhood was extremely welcoming with a sense of Americana that people tend to lament as something past. And while the Peninsula does not have an abundant Jewish population, the synagogue often becomes the default place for anything Jewish.
“It’s not the west side of Los Angeles where Judaism looms much larger in the landscape of the community, but in turn what happens is people come here for anything Jewish they want to do whether it’s to watch a Jewish movie, eat bagels and lox or celebrate an event. It’s all here. We are it,” Schuldenfrei said. “What that means is often we see ourselves not only as a place of prayer, but a place of culture and celebration.”
While Ner Tamid falls under the conservative sect of the Jewish tradition, Schuldenfrei has not shied away from what he calls “meeting people where they are.”
“I really believe that in Judaism there are multiple pathways to find connection,” he said. “Your path and my path are going to look very different. But when you find your path, however that is, we want to be able to celebrate it. That’s really what we’re about. We believe in welcoming and greeting people and meeting people where they are. We see that as really important to the fabric of this community.”
It’s the lasting connections he looks forward to most.
“This holiday season it was special to be able to look into the community and see very supportive faces, people who really were invested and want this community to be very successful,” he said. “What I’m really looking forward to is 10 years down the road when you know these people so well and you’ve spent time with them. That, for a rabbi, is one of the best moments you can have.”