The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader


From award-winning journalist Stephen Fried comes a vividly intimate portrait of American Judaism today in which faith, family, and community are explored through the dramatic life of a landmark congregation as it seeks to replace its legendary retiring rabbi?and reinvent itself for the next generation.

The New Rabbi

The center of this compelling chronicle is Har Zion Temple on Philadelphia?s Main Line, which for the last seventy-five years has...

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From award-winning journalist Stephen Fried comes a vividly intimate portrait of American Judaism today in which faith, family, and community are explored through the dramatic life of a landmark congregation as it seeks to replace its legendary retiring rabbi—and reinvent itself for the next generation.

The New Rabbi

The center of this compelling chronicle is Har Zion Temple on Philadelphia’s Main Line, which for the last seventy-five years has been one of the largest and most influential congregations in America. For thirty years Rabbi Gerald Wolpe has been its spiritual leader, a brilliant sermonizer of wide renown—but now he has announced his retirement. It is the start of a remarkable nationwide search process largely unknown to the lay world—and of much more. For at this dramatic moment Wolpe agrees to give extraordinary access to Fried, inviting him—and the reader—into the intense personal and professional life of the clergy and the complex behind-the-scenes life of a major Conservative congregation.

These riveting pages bring us a unique view of Judaism in practice: from Har Zion’s strong-willed leaders and influential families to the young bar and bat mitzvahs just beginning their Jewish lives; from the three-days-a-year synagogue goers to the hard core of devout attendees. We are touched by their times of joy and times of grief, intrigued by congregational politics, moved by the search for faith. We witness the conflicts between generations about issues of belief, observance, and the pressures of secular life. We meet Wolpe’s vigorous-minded ailing wife and his sons, one of whom has become a celebrity rabbi in Los Angeles. And we follow the author’s own moving search for meaning as he reconnects with the religion of his youth.

We also have a front-row seat at the usually clandestine process of choosing a new rabbi, as what was expected to be a simple one-year search for Rabbi Wolpe’s successor extends to two years and then three. Dozens of résumés are rejected, a parade of prospects come to interview, the chosen successor changes his mind at the last minute, and a confrontation erupts between the synagogue and the New York–based Conservative rabbis’ “union” that governs the process. As the time comes for Wolpe to depart, a venerated house of worship is being torn apart. And thrust onto the pulpit is Wolpe’s young assistant, Rabbi Jacob Herber, in his first job out of rabbinical school, facing the nearly impossible situation of taking over despite being technically ineligible for the position—and finding himself on trial with the congregation and at odds with his mentor.

Rich in anecdote and scenes of wonderful immediacy, this is a riveting book about the search for personal faith, about the tension between secular concerns and ancient tradition in affluent America, and about what Wolpe himself has called “the retail business of religion.” Stephen Fried brings all these elements to vivid life with the passion and energy of a superbly gifted storyteller.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
What happens when a prominent Jewish congregation loses its revered and renowned rabbi? That's the quandary behind The New Rabbi, Stephen Fried's evenhanded chronicle of Philadelphia's Har Zion Temple's sometimes contentious search for a successor to the retiring Gerald Wolpe. Jews and non-Jews alike will benefit from the author's insights about religion, faith, and community.
From the Publisher
“Compelling . . . extraordinarily valuable . . . intertwines a personal search for religious meaning with a communal search for continuity. . . . Fried hoped to shed light on the future of the rabbinic profession and, indirectly, on the future of Judaism and organized religion in America . . . and [he] gets it absolutely right.” —Washington Post Book World

“Fascinating . . . Beneath the story about synagogue politics is a novel-like story about love and loss.” —New York Times

“Brave . . . remarkable . . . a book about leadership that you don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate.” —Philadelphia Inquirer

Publishers Weekly
This inside portrait of Conservative Judaism, the largest American Jewish denomination, reads like a novel fueled by a simple yet dramatic plot: Who will become the next rabbi of Har Zion a powerful 1,400-family Philadelphia synagogue upon the retirement of Gerald Wolpe, its vibrant spiritual leader of 30 years? Fried draws on his resourcefulness as an investigative journalist to gain access to the usually closed, juicy inner workings of the search process, delivered in a fond spirit that nevertheless has a potentially embarrassing, spill-the-beans quality for some of the players. He opens a door on the private details of a rabbi' s life, based on the unprecedented access Wolpe granted him. The idea for the book was born upon the death of Fried' s father; Fried began attending services to recite the kaddish, the mourner' s prayer. He also began taking notes, compelled by the dearth of journalistic accounts of the lives of American Jews as Jews. What results is a compelling triple memoir, simultaneously recording Wolpe' s career, Fried' s own journey toward Judaism and a community' s evolution. In his crisp yet easy style, Fried chats about the basics of Judaism without heavy explanations that might have deadened the narrative: Yom Kippur is the April 15th of Judaism ; a citron resembles a lemon on steroids. Nothing escapes his wry observations, from bar mitzvah yarmulkes to rabbinic conventions. Fried' s intensely personal yet broadly detailed perspective should interest both Jewish and non-Jewish readers who are curious about what really goes on behind the lectern. (Aug. 20) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
If reading about synagogue politics sounds exciting, this book is for you. Investigative journalist Fried (Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia) here turns to the Har Zion Synagogue in Penn Valley, PA, and its choosing of a new rabbi after the retirement of its spiritual leader, Gerald I. Wolpe. The book is so packed with details of the daily life of Conservative rabbis that only insiders are likely to get much pleasure from it. Fried doesn't even get around to addressing the choice of a new rabbi until Chapter 14. The problem of a shortage of qualified clergy is as evident in Judaism as it is in Protestantism and Catholicism. Money is also an important factor here, because running suburban synagogues is an expensive business and the best seats in the house carry high prices. Fried also goes into detail about the synagogue's flight from urban Philadelphia to the more affluent suburbs. Finally, after a stormy three-year search, the congregation decided to select its own junior rabbi to be its new leader. Fried's book should be required reading at all seminaries; beyond that, it will have limited interest. James A. Overbeck, Atlanta-Fulton P.L., GA Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553380750
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/26/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 373
  • Sales rank: 1,483,251
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.97 (h) x 0.77 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Fried is the author of three books, Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia; Bitter Pills: Inside the Hazardous World of Legal Drugs; and The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader. A two-time winner of the National Magazine Award, he has written articles for Glamour, Vanity Fair, GQ, and Rolling Stone. He is an adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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Read an Excerpt

His Voice

What we missed most was his voice. Our rabbi could make the most stilted English translation of prayer sound like Shakespeare. His voice was muscular and musical, with an accent that sounded vaguely British at first, but later revealed itself to be all-American, with leftover "aahs" from Boston.

This was not like the voice of God. Rabbis do not aspire to divinity. They have jobs in an industry that has, like many others, shifted from manufacturing to service. Rabbis are employees, religion workers, with unions and contracts and job-related injuries. They have to negotiate dental with the very congregants they must inspire.

Still, while rabbis do not speak for God, some of them have God-given gifts. Rabbi Gerald Wolpe’s gift was his voice.

My dad had a story he loved to tell about the day when Wolpe took the makeshift stage of a flatbed truck in the parking lot of the Harrisburg Jewish Community Center. It was the summer of 1967, the height of the Six-Day War. And the rabbi brought home this crisis from halfway across the world with such eloquent urgency that my parents were inspired to pledge to Israel, then and there, every last cent they had saved for brand-new wall-to-wall carpeting. Anyone who ever saw the mud-gray shag they wanted to replace would have to agree this qualified as a miracle. And it was documented for posterity. There was a record album made of the speech. My parents bought that, too.

But then Rabbi Wolpe left us. And we never forgave him for taking the voice away.

I was eleven when he departed, so I remember him only vaguely as an image in confirmation class pictures along the wall—all sideburns and pageantry, dressed, as rabbis did back then, like a human Torah. I vaguely recall him telling us to stop running in the hall between Hebrew school classes at Beth El Temple, and to stop banging on the candy machine.

But I have been following Rabbi Wolpe’s lead in my head for de- cades. When I pray, I still pause where he paused, emote where he emoted. When I hear the Ashrei, David’s psalm of praise, recited in English, I laugh to myself when I reach the line about giving the hopeful their food “œin due season,” because I can hear Wolpe giving “due” an extra syllable—”d-yew.” The way he articulated “all the wicked . . . he will bring low” was enough to keep me from going astray.

One of my strongest memories of growing up Jewish is sitting at Friday night dinner listening to my parents, my Nana and Pop-pop, and my aunts and uncles go on about the politics of the day and Wolpe’s sermons. To them, he combined the wisdom of the ages with the morning headlines, name-dropping his way through history, religion and culture.

On the night of Kol Nidre, the prayer that ushers in Yom Kippur, the holiest twenty-four hours of the year, they would eat dinner earlier than usual and leave immediately afterward to attend a special service—for adults only. All they would tell us about this mysterious ceremony was, “Oh, you kids wouldn’t like it anyway, we have to stand for hours.” When the grown-ups returned, they had this strange look on their faces. I assumed they were exhausted from standing. Now I realize it was a kind of awe, the voice still resonating.

I would like to hear him again.

On an overcast Tuesday in mid-November, I drive out to the synagogue that stole Rabbi Wolpe away. I had seen a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer, one that a peppier headline writer would have titled “Tuesday, the Rabbi Gave Notice.” Wolpe was calling it quits, announcing a rather elaborate plan of retirement in which he would give the synagogue two years to find a suitable replacement and make a smooth transition.

Why now? Judaism is a religion of mystical numbers, starting with “the Lord is One,” in its most important prayer, the Sh’ma. Wolpe told the newspaper that the numbers just seemed right. Not only would the long good-bye coincide with his seventieth birthday and his thirtieth year on this pulpit, it would be the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of Har Zion. It would also be the twenty-fifth anniversary of the congregation’s controversial relocation from the city neighborhood of Wynnefield to the prosperous suburb of Penn Valley, the heart of what is now called the “Jewish Main Line.”

As I’m driving out there, the numbers seem right to me, too. I’m about to turn forty and I just lost my father. I have reached the point in life when all answers turn back into questions. After making the same professional journey that Wolpe did—Harrisburg to Philly, with occasional day trips to New York—I have been writing investigative articles and books from here for nearly two decades. Yet our paths have rarely crossed. I did call him once, in the mid-eighties, to get some quotes for a story I was doing. But we’ve never really talked.

For a guy whose voice is in my head, I should know him better.

My first glimpse of Har Zion is through a break in a row of evergreens in a typical McMansioned Main Line neighborhood. It’s a modern sprawl of a building, surrounded by rolling lawns, parking lots, even a fenced-in basketball court and playground. I use the side entrance, where the clergy and staff park their late-model cars while the moms idle in their SUVs, watching their preschoolers, and then me, dash up the steps.

I find Rabbi Wolpe in the largest of a suite of offices, sitting behind a utilitarian desk. He is surrounded by the overstuffed shelves of someone who has actually read the books. On a glass side table are the usual family photos and a bronze of his own head. Half-glasses balanced on his nose, phone to his ear, he waves me in.

Wolpe’s face has a certain cartoonish geometry—as if drawn using two perfect circles for cheekbones—and a fleshy ethnicity of uncertain origin. Mostly he looks like a man who works with his hands, dressed in his best suit and tie for a special occasion. Yet when he speaks, his face takes on new character and refinement, the rich charisma of the voice.

He asks—actually, he “aahsks”—how my mother is holding up. Fine, thanks, but that’s not why I’m here.

I ask him how he is. It’s a simple enough question, but I can see it’s not one he hears very often. Usually, when people come to visit him, it is to unburden themselves. He pauses, removes his glasses and leans back in his desk chair.

Instead of answering right away, he makes a joke about what it’s like to be slipping into his “anecdotage,” when new research is mostly dusting memories. He is preparing to give a speech in a few days to the synagogue Men’s Club, reflections on the end of his rabbinate. This could be a good opportunity to try out some of his material.

An only child of working-class Eastern European immigrant parents in the Roxbury section of Boston, Wolpe was raised by the Jewish community based at the synagogue Mishkan Tefila. It was a lively congregation, where one of his Hebrew school teachers was moonlighting political historian Theodore H. White, and one of the older kids in shul was young Leonard Bernstein, who played piano at the dinner after Wolpe’s bar mitzvah.

Benjamin Wolpe, his father, was a vaudeville singer, part of a “song, dance and fancy patter outfit” on the popular Keith Circuit of theaters. His mother, Sally, worked in the family kosher catering business, which was run by her older sister, Bessie, and Bessie’s husband, David. “The family was like a sponge,” he tells me. “It absorbed anybody who came into its orbit.” There was always a lot of food and, on a moment’s notice, forty people could show up for dinner. “It was a happy, supportive, riotous kind of place. From my uncles, I learned you can kiss strong men and not be considered a weakling.”

Benny Wolpe died suddenly when his son was only eleven. “I still remember my father laughing,” he says. “He was a very funny man, always with a cigar.” His mother came home one day and found him dead. Probably a heart attack or a stroke.

“That was the pivotal moment in my life,” he says. “In a sense, I’ve been living in that moment ever since.”

I interrupt him. How is it that I don’t recall hearing this story when I was a kid? It was not part of the Wolpe canon in Harrisburg or, later, the Wolpe mythology. He says I’m remembering correctly: he did not start speaking so publicly about his father’s death until several years after he left Harrisburg. When he reached his mid-forties, and was about to pass the age his father was when he died, Wolpe became more open about such things, mostly because he was so fearful that he too would die young. By the time he underwent open-heart surgery at the age of sixty-three, his father’s death had become a central metaphor of his sermonizing.

After being widowed, Wolpe’s mother began working full-time in the catering business as head waitress. They lived in an apartment above the home of his mother’s sister. She and her husband didn’t have any children of their own, so they functioned as Jerry’s surrogate parents. To some degree, they were parents to his mother as well. Sally Wolpe was never quite the same after the day she took her eleven-year-old son in her arms and told him his father was gone.

He was also taken in by the shammash, the sexton, of his synagogue, an elderly immigrant named Mr. Einstein. Even though he was not technically old enough to say the mourner’s prayer for his father—those responsibilities don’t kick in until age thirteen—Jerry Wolpe still wanted to do it. Mr. Einstein walked him to shul every day before school, and guided him through the traditional mourning process. He taught Wolpe how to recite the mourner’s Kaddish.

“Ritual can be amazingly effective in allowing you to do something, anything, whether it makes sense or not,” Wolpe continues. “To be able to say a prayer and be in the company of people sharing the same pain . . . well, that was a saving experience. Mr. Einstein taught me how to daven, to pray. He’d sit next to me during the service, and say, “˜You know, everybody goes very fast. Don’t you go fast. Go as slow as you want.’ He was a very short man, with a teaching humor. If I mispronounced something, he’d say, “˜What’s the matter, did you have a schnapps this morning?’ He made me feel incredibly comfortable in a strange surrounding.”

But the Kaddish did not relieve the pain. It simply provided him with words to scream at God. His father’s death was the genesis of what Wolpe calls his “theology based on anger.” His proof of God’s existence, he says, is that in order for him to remain that angry at something, it must exist. It is a view of God that is intellectually provocative and deeply egocentric, just like Wolpe himself. And it is a view of religion driven not primarily by spirituality or joy, but by a time-honored mechanism of coping, a way to process disappointment and loss. As if locked in Jacob’s dream, he is forever wrestling with God.

He tells me that the decision to devote his life to professional wrestling was ensured by another incident when he was a teen. One day he returned from school to find his mother banging her head against the kitchen table and wailing. In her hand was a letter from Israel, from a nephew passing on the horrific news that everyone else in her family—forty-two people, including the brother she had begged to leave and come to America with her—had been murdered by the Nazis in Poland. Wolpe had grown accustomed to hearing his widowed mother cry through the night. But never like this.

“Hitler made my mother cry,” he recalls. “How else do you fight back? You become a rabbi.”

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Reading Group Guide

A Reader’s Discussion Guide

By Stephen Fried

The questions, topics, and commentary that follow are intended to deepen your understanding of Stephen Fried’s THE NEW RABBI. We hope it will enhance your reading experience.

Because THE NEW RABBI touches on issues of faith, of community, of the role of leaders, and of personal growth, we believe this book will spark fascinating discussion, debate, and ideas. We encourage you to share these thoughts with us; please contact the author via his Web site at or the publisher, Bantam Books, via

1) In explaining why he started writing this book, Stephen Fried says, “You never forget your first rabbi” (p. 2). Do you remember the first community or religious leader who had an impact on you as a kid? Was it a positive or negative impact, and why?

2) Reviewers have noted that THE NEW RABBI is about many searches, not just a congregation’s search for a new leader. It chronicles Rabbi Wolpe’s search for meaning at the end of his career, the author’s search for meaning after the death of his father, and a community’s search for how it can reinvent itself for the twenty-first century. But the book also explores the search of Americans for the role of organized religion in their lives. Which search was most interesting to you? Why?

3) Fried also explains that he became interested in doing an investigative book set in a synagogue because he had returned to active religious practice in his late thirties after the death of his father. Have you had a traumatic event that altered your view of the place of religion in your life? What was the event, and did it make you feel closer to the religion you grew up in, or further from it than ever?

4) One of the main characters in this book, retiring Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, allowed the author unprecedented access to the behind-the-scenes life of the clergy and a major American house of worship. Many have praised his openness, but others have said that letting a reporter into the private life of a community was a mistake. What do you think? Why?

5) In the book, Rabbi Wolpe refers to “the retail business of religion” (p. 17). Do you think that being a member of the clergy has always been part business, part calling, or that being a rabbi, priest, or minister has really changed in recent years?

6) THE NEW RABBI follows the meetings and deliberations of a search committee, made up entirely of volunteers, who will pick the future spiritual leader of the community. Have you ever served on a search committee? Have you ever had an intense experience serving on any volunteer committee? Can you imagine being on a committee that meets for three years to make a final decision, as the Har Zion search committee did?

7) One of the first debates among members of the search committee for the new leader at Har Zion is whether their new leader should be someone they can call by his/her first name—rather than a more formal, old-fashioned clergyman like Rabbi Wolpe (whom nobody calls Jerry). In your house of worship or organization, do you gravitate toward older, more formal leaders, or younger, more “user-friendly” leaders? Why? Does this differ from organization to organization for you?

8) In the book, you meet many different members of the clergy, especially Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, his son Rabbi David Wolpe, Rabbi Jacob Herber, and Rabbi Moshe Tutnauer. Which one would you choose to lead the services at your house of worship? And to which one do you think you’d turn privately in a time of need?

9) The author describes being almost surprised when he finds prayer comforting (p. 43) after his father dies. Do you pray? What for? Do you do it in a house of worship, or privately? And do you believe prayers are answered?

10) Throughout, author Stephen Fried remains open about the fact that there are times when he isn’t sure whether he is at the synagogue to report or to pray. “Am I here as a journalist or a worshipper?” he asks (p. 92) when he chooses to attend a High Holiday service at Har Zion instead of praying with his wife and family at their temple. Do you, as a reader, like the fact that the author wears two hats? Or does it bother you and make you question his objectivity? Do you think it is possible for a journalist to become part of the story and still maintain a journalistic distance?

11) How do you think you would feel if a book like this was written about your community? And what would you do if a journalist came to you and asked you to be a character in the book, and to tell him what went on at closed-door meetings?

12) Some Jewish leaders have said that no matter how accurate, a book like THE NEW RABBI should not be written because it reveals too much. Do you agree?

13) A major theme of THE NEW RABBI is the intense relationship between fathers and children. How do you (or did you) get along with your own father, and which father-child relationship in the book did you most relate to?

14) Another major theme in the book is mentorship, and how the relationships between mentors and protégés can change over time, either growing or eroding. Did you ever have a mentor? Do you still? What is/was your relationship with your mentor like?

15) A major turning point in THE NEW RABBI comes when the synagogue decides to try to elevate its young assistant rabbi, Jacob Herber, to the top clergy job even though he lacks experience. Many people view this decision as a mistake, however well-intentioned. Do you think it was a mistake? If so, who do you think is more to blame: the synagogue leaders for asking the rabbi to take the job, or the young rabbi for accepting it?

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 14, 2005

    Too much rambling

    As a Jew, I found this book boring. The author has a stuffy writing style and tends to ramble. The book was so uninteresting, that even with about 50 pages left, I returned the book back to the store and don't care who they elected for their new rabbi.

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