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Local Rabbi Takes Unconventional Approach

Rabbi Debra Nesselson does not believe a traditional congregation is necessary for all Jews

A freelancer comes in and takes care of the needs of a group that has a project which demands immediate attention. That happens every day in the business world, but it is probably not the concept most people think of in terms of religion.

That is where  comes in.

One New York rabbi estimates about half of American Jews are not affiliated with a traditional congregation for one reason or another. That has opened up a world for Nesselson and other unaffiliated Jewish clergy, who charge per service.

“You don’t have to belong to a synagogue to practice your Judaism,” Nesselson said.

With Rosh Hashanah Sunday night, Nesselson will be leading a service of hundreds of devoted worshipers at the Highland Park Community House. She will be conducting services throughout the High Holidays.

It has been an interesting career path for Nesselson who had been a rabbi at Congregation B’nai Torah in Highland Park, but left that congregation after 10 years a year ago. “I left B’nai Torah because my vision of where the American Jewish community is headed and what I think what B’nai Torah’s vision is is different,” she said.

Nesselson Finds New Career Path

After receiving many requests to lead High Holiday services following her departure from B’nai Torah, she decided this might be a way for her to make a living both locally and in Santa Barbara, CA, where she and her husband, Garry Cohen, have a home.    

The fact that there are many rabbis like Nesselson indicates a saturated market and like so much of American life today, there aren’t enough jobs to go around.

Besides performing High Holiday services, Nesselson conducts baby naming, funerals and weddings. She will also perform certain interfaith weddings, which remains a hotly debated topic within the Jewish community.

She will take students under her wing for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. She is also an avid lover of adult education. She had developed many admirers, including people who left B’nai Torah to remain affiliated with her.

“She Is a Great Listener”

“She is a great listener,” Jack Heyden of Highland Park said. He calls her Rabbi Debbie. “Her empathy is tremendous and she connects with people and she is incredibly committed to Judaism,” Heyden said.

Heyden believes the traditional synagogue setting is antiquated for many people, not to mention that membership dues that can be onerous.

“Kids schedules are so diverse and there are so many activities,” Heyden says. “It gets harder every year for a young person to prepare for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah in a traditional way. You have to find a way to deal with that.”

However, rabbis like Nesselson have their detractors.

“The congregation is the ideal gateway to Jewish life” Rabbi Edward C. Bernstein of Temple Torah in West Boynton Beach, FL, said. He grew up in Chicago.

“The congregation members are exposed to clergy who have expert training,” Bernstein said. “They have opportunities to engage throughout the year with learning, prayer and social life. In our day and age, people need community more than ever and the power of being part of a community transcends the fee for service model to which we have become so accustomed.”

At the end of the day, what works for one Jew may not work for the next one. Some will prefer traditional setting; other might opt for the other approach. Nesselson is grateful that she can provide the variety. 

“The needs of Jews are similar whether they are affiliated or unaffiliated,” Nesselson said. “Whether they are members of synagogues or not, they still need rabbis to place their lifecycle events within a Judaic context.”

Bob Smith September 13, 2012 at 12:58 PM
What time are the services and what's the cost?
Les Axelrod September 13, 2012 at 01:03 PM
To set the record straight, Rabbi Nesselson was B'nai Torah's Associate Rabbi for ten years. After the departure of our previous Senior Rabbi, Rabbi Nesselson was offered that position and accepted it. About two months later, she resigned.
Les Axelrod September 13, 2012 at 01:20 PM
A keystroke glitch accidentally deleted the balance of my message: During Rabbi Nesselson's ten years as Associate Rabbi, my wife and I had great respect and affection for her as a rabbi and as a person. We were sorry to have her leave.
Miriam September 13, 2012 at 03:08 PM
Another great option is Chabad. Services open to all membership not required. Check out www.Chabad.org/highholidays
Brad Bensman September 13, 2012 at 10:53 PM
Replying to Bob Smith. Hi, I will be at services, and you can find all the information on the rabbi's website, www.RabbiNesselson.com. Thanks.

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