COVID-19 has changed the way congregations are working to provide spiritual support to its membership with some shifting to Zoom worship, some sharing worship completely online, some meeting in person with social distancing. But not many congregations can say that a worship leader is joining them-albeit by Zoom and in January.
Rabbi Barry Altman of Ormond Beach, FL, retired after 38 years at Temple Beth- El, but found that he wanted to stay active in congregational life after formal retirement. In consultation with the Board of Mountain Synagogue, Rabbi Altman plans to provide services via Zoom from January to July on some Friday nights and/or Saturday mornings. This was after what was described as “the best attendance we have had” following a December Zoom service.
Rabbi Altman is no stranger to part-time work. For the past five years since his retirement from Temple Beth-El, he has traveled once a month to provide in- person services for a congregation in Meridian, MS. Prior to COVID, he would fly to Meridain for the weekend services, but now he and his wife Nancy prefer to drive.
The Mississippi congregation’s part-time work runs from the High Holy Days (usually in September) through May and he said, “This person from the north who before seminary never ventured west of the Hudson River, now loves BBQ, gumbo and I can even say, “y’all.”
Rabbi Altman grew up in the Borough of Bronx, New York City, graduated from both NYU and Columbia before attending Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he planned to pursue a PhD in Biblical Studies before “drifting into this rabbinic thing.” During his first week of school, he was asked to go to Oklahoma to be the rabbi for the High Holy day services; he described this as an “incredible event” and realized that one should do what “makes you happy.”
He also served as a substitute rabbi for a congregation in West Virginia in the coal mining counties during his time in Cincinnati. Five years later, upon graduation, he was called to be the associate rabbi for a large congregation in Miami, FL before eventually moving to Ormond Beach. But after 44 years in Florida, he says he has learned to love BBQ, gumbo and even can say, “y’all.” He is a teacher and Rabbi Altman serves on the faculty of Stetson University. This spring, he will offer courses in Intro to Judaism, Holocaust Theology and the American Jewish Experience. He plans to teach virtually although he said that
Stetson has done “an excellent job” in keeping students and faculty safe. There have been only a few positive cases, but he feels that he should opt for virtual teaching this spring. “I love it,” he said, referring to his time with students. “That’s what a Rabbi should be.” He has even turned this love of teaching into an opportunity to teach on several cruise ships.
He hopes to continue this passion for teaching by offering courses with Mt. Synagogue during the summer, probably online, in such areas as the true story of Anne Frank or the American Jewish contribution to literature. “ I want to do anything and everything that is helpful with Mountain Synagogue.” For this summer, Rabbi Altman and Nancy plan to rent a home somewhere between Waynesville and Franklin, and they are working with members of Mountain Synagogue to have some virtual “walk-thrus” of possible summer rentals. He is familiar with the area having come up to Cataloochee previously to ride horses.
Mountain Synagogue president Joel Edelson, said, “Rabbi Barry Altman brings a wealth of knowledge and experience with him and we are so grateful to have him with us this year. We hope, if scheduling works out, to entertain the idea of a community interfaith event with our Interfaith Coalition, discussing a topic of broad interest and general appeal.
‘While our lay leaders and previous spiritual leaders at Mountain Synagogue will continue to (and have done) an amazing job, there is something very exciting to have a rabbi, a trained professional, learned teacher, help conduct our services. We feel truly blessed, and honored, to welcome Rabbi Altman to Mountain Synagogue.”
Mountain Synagogue’s service will be this Friday, January 15 at 7:30pm. The website for information about how to sign in for the Zoom service is mountainsynagoguewnc.com.