Congregation Kesher Israel has experienced a rabbinic changing of the guard.
Rabbi Akiva Males, who shepherded the Uptown Harrisburg Modern Orthodox congregation for nine years, accepted a position this past summer at a synagogue in Memphis, Tenn. Enter Rabbi Elisha Friedman.
This is a first full-time pulpit for the 29-year-old Friedman, who received his rabbinic ordination at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary in June 2013.
Some might find a smaller community like Harrisburg daunting, but Friedman, a native of West Hartford, Conn., is like a fish in water. After his engineer father changed fields to the rabbinate, the family lived in various places in New York and Israel.
“So, I grew up in very small Jewish communities,” Friedman said.
And, coming here, it wasn’t the first time that he had spent time in Pennsylvania’s capital city.
“Years ago, my father came to Kesher Israel as a scholar-in-residence, and I was with him,” Friedman said.
Founded in 1902, Kesher Israel is based on the “observance and study of Torah, prayer and acts of loving-kindness,” according to its website.
“The people are warm and down to earth and really care about heir shul (Yiddish for ‘synagogue’) and community and appreciate what the rabbi does,” Friedman said. “Unlike in some larger communities, I really feel I am making a difference in Jewish life and playing an important role in the [wider] Jewish community.”
He also acknowledges that he’s taken on a lot of responsibility.
“Considering my young age, it’s something I wasn’t sure I’d be trusted with for a few more years,” he said.
Friedman’s sentiments are reciprocated.
“I’ve been hearing repeatedly from many congregants how pleased they are with our choice, that we definitely made the right one,” said Dan Grabenstein, synagogue president. “People appreciate Rabbi Friedman’s friendly and upbeat personality, in addition to his interesting and meaningful divrei Torah (Torah teachings).”
And Friedman appreciates the small city where he’s landed. He points to “obvious strengths” in central Pennsylvania—beauty, affordable housing and “all the amenities a religiously observant person would need,” including kosher food, a Jewish day school and a ritual bath, not to mention proximity to New York, New Jersey and Baltimore—and other major Jewish centers.
“The community also has a lot of unity between the various synagogues and rabbis,” he said.
But Friedman derives enjoyment, too, from the quiet lifestyle.
“There is almost nothing I can imagine I would prefer doing than being an out-of-town rabbi,” Friedman said. “You can ask my wife. I say it all the time.”
His wife, Yamit Friedman, was a charter school teacher in New York and is now working on a master’s degree at Penn State Harrisburg in urban education. She is also a graduate assistant at Penn State.
Of course, there are challenges, as well. Kesher Israel’s “major one” is membership.
“Both building our membership more generally, and, specifically, attracting young families to the area,” Friedman said.
The Harrisburg Jewish community overall is aging, so attracting younger members to the synagogue is a high priority.
“Many of KI’s members have passed away or are getting older and less active,” he said. “We’d like younger families, which would also greatly help the Silver Academy”—the community day school founded by the late Rabbi David L. Silver in 1944.
The attempt to attract new residents to Harrisburg predates Friedman’s tenure, as
Kesher Israel has been conducting a project called “KI Recruiting.” It seeks employers who might offer job opportunities for Jews relocating to Harrisburg and assists their integration into the community.
Friedman believes these efforts will tally well with Mayor Eric Papenfuse’s program to attract people to Harrisburg, since Orthodox Jews need the amenities the city offers.
Plus, there’s the rabbi’s age.
“Part of the reason KI chose me is my relative youth and the hope I can use it to connect with younger families,” he said.
Friedman’s career choice was influenced by his father, but not exclusively.
“I’ve always been very into my Judaism and kind of obsessed with religious and theological themes,” he said. “So, the field seemed a natural fit.”
He also loves rabbinic “multitasking.”
“The rabbinate requires public speaking, programming, quiet study and erudition, schmoozing, writing and, of course, some politics,” Friedman explained. “It feels like a field that exercises and challenges a lot of talents, which I think is somewhat rare in this age of specialization.”
Not to mention counseling, which Friedman embraces due to his affinity for psychoanalysis.
“I consider it one of the great truths that guides me,” he said.
On a lighter note, Friedman also likes pop music, which helps pass the time while he drives.
“Some of the songs can be moving in a kitschy way,” he said, laughing.
Kesher Israel Congregation is located at 2500 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.kesherisrael.org.