Synopses & Reviews
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 Philadelphias 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 Zions 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 Wolpes vigorous-minded ailing wife and his sons, one of whom has become a celebrity rabbi in Los Angeles. And we follow the authors 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 Wolpes 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 Wolpes 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.
For the last seventy-five years, Har Zion Temple on Philadelphia's Main Line has been one of the largest and most influential congregations in America. As it sought a successor to its legendary retiring rabbi Gerald Wolpe, investigative journalist Stephen Fried was given unprecedented access to Wolpe and his family, to the daily life of the huge synagogue, to the powerful national "union" for Conservative rabbis, and to a remarkable search process largely unknown to the lay world. The result is a riveting book--updated with a new afterword--about the search for personal faith, the tension between secular concerns and ancient tradition, the nature of leadership, and "the retail business of religion."
About 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.
From the Hardcover edition.
Reading Group Guide
A Readers Discussion Guide
THE NEW RABBI
By Stephen Fried
The questions, topics, and commentary that follow are intended to deepen your understanding of Stephen Frieds 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 www.stephenfried.com or the publisher, Bantam Books, via www.bantamdell.com.
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 congregations search for a new leader. It chronicles Rabbi Wolpes search for meaning at the end of his career, the authors search for meaning after the death of his father, and a communitys 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 youd 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 isnt 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?