"It's all new - new rabbi, new building, new year," said Rabbi Moshe Saks, who will celebrate Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, next week for the first time as spiritual leader of Congregation B'nai Israel.
The High Holy Days begin at sundown Wednesday with a celebration of the start of year 5768 on the Jewish calender. It will be followed by Ten Days of Repentance and end on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on Sept. 22.
As a newcomer to B'nai Israel, where he started Aug. 1, Rabbi Saks said he plans to spend the first year getting to know his congregation, including attending small get-togethers in members' homes.
For Rosh Hashana, he plans to use the new synagogue as an illustration of how the congregation must adapt and face the future together.
B'nai Israel, founded in 1866, moved from its Kenwood Boulevard synagogue in Toledo's Old Orchard neighborhood, where it had been located for 50 years, to the new $4 million synagogue in Sylvania in January.
The gleaming facility, with its oak-lined circular sanctuary topped with bright clerestory windows, is about half the size of the Kenwood Boulevard synagogue, reflecting the drop in the congregation's numbers.
Rabbi Saks said declining memberships are the norm in Jewish congregations nationwide, which is part of the challenge that he and all Jews are facing today.
"Despite the demographic challenge, there is a lot of energy and enthusiasm here," he said. "I feel there is a sense of a new beginning, of planning for the future."
The 52-year-old rabbi, a native of Philadelphia, was ordained in May, 1981, after graduating from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He and his wife, Meira, have five children, including a son, Ari, 25, who is a rabbinical student at JTS.
He said the members of B'nai Israel have been extremely welcoming to him and his family.
In addition to a son studying to be a rabbi, the Saks' JTS connections include daughter Rachel, 23, who is now a graduate student at the New York institution, and son Daniel, 21, who is enrolled in a joint program between JTS and Columbia University.
Their daughter Reena, 18, is studying in Israel for a year and their youngest child, 13-year-old Eliana, the only one at home now, is an eighth-grader at Timberstone Junior High School in Sylvania.
Rabbi Saks comes to the Toledo area from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where he had been the spiritual leader of Beth Tzedec Congregation for 10 years.
That congregation of 650 families is the largest in Alberta. B'nai Israel has about 450 families, but Rabbi Saks said he was looking for a place closer to his and his wife's family on the East Coast. By contrast, Calgary is in the Rocky Mountains, north of Montana.
Rabbi Saks said he decided on the rabbinate after attending Camp Ramah, the Conservative Jewish movement's summer camp, in the Pocono Mountains.
"I told a counselor that I wanted to do something Jewish, and he said, 'Why not be a rabbi?' "
His wife's father was a rabbi and her brother is a rabbi, and when his son Ari completes his studies he will be the family's third-generation rabbi, Rabbi Saks said with a proud smile.
Rabbi Saks is certified as an alcohol rehabilitation counselor, has studied pastoral psychiatry and clinical pastoral education, earned bachelor's degrees in history and Hebrew literature from Yeshiva University, and a social worker's degree from Columbia.
Among the accomplishments he is most proud of while serving in Calgary was his involvement in multifaith and interfaith programs, adding that the Catholic Diocese of Calgary named him its "rabbi."
Rabbi Saks said he believes interfaith dialogue is important because it promotes good will and understanding of all cultures.
"I'm a pluralist. A pluralist believes that our way is the best way, but that there are other valid ways. A fundamentalist believes that 'it's my way, and there is no other way.' The fundamentalist sees no point in talking to other faiths," he said.
For now, the rabbi's immediate challenge is to prepare his sermons for the High Holy Days.
"My style is atypical," he said. "My approach is to keep it short. If you can't say what you want to say in 10 minutes, then you don't know what you want to say."
He usually writes down a few notes and ideas but does not write out entire sermons.
The High Holy Days are different, however. He said his sermons are usually 20 to 30 minutes long and he writes them out longhand because people often ask for copies.
Although he has been in Canada for 10 years, Rabbi Saks never lost his love for Philadelphia sports teams. In addition to reading and exercising, the rabbi said he relaxes by watching Phillies, Eagles, and 76ers games.
After the High Holy Days are over, Rabbi Saks said he wants to assess the strengths and weaknesses of B'nai Israel.
"I want to look at the synagogue and see what we can do to improve ourselves."
He said he has been impressed already by the congregation's "spirit of cooperation."
"That's one of the reasons I came here," Rabbi Saks said.
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