Rabbi Fel: Ready to connect, ignite, transform

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For Michael Fel, Temple Emanu-El’s new senior rabbi, moving to Providence is a bit of a homecoming. Rabbi Fel grew up in Miami, but his wife, Shayna, is a graduate of the Alperin Schechter Day School (now the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island) and her brother, Ami Hersh, was Rabbi Fel’s best friend in rabbinical school. That’s how the couple met.

“I’ve been coming here [Providence] for over a decade,” Rabbi Fel said in a recent interview. “I always thought that this was the kind of place that I’d someday like to lead a congregation.”

Fel received a bachelor’s degree from the University of Miami. He was ordained at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Schusterman Rabbinic Fellow and earned a master’s degree in Midrash and Scriptural Interpretation.

He spent the last eight years at Temple Emunah, a conservative congregation in Lexington, Massachusetts. He started at Temple Emanu-El in July, following the retirement of Rabbi Wayne Franklin.

“Shabbat feels different for us here,” he said. “It’s a walking community. We wanted to be somewhere where being Jewish and living a Jewish life felt normative.” In Providence, his three young children are near relatives and can have play dates on Shabbat.

In his spare time, Fel enjoys cooking, woodworking, creating and playing percussion instruments, and the outdoors.

I sat down with Rabbi Fel to talk about his thoughts and plans. Here is some of what we discussed.

Is this a kind of dream job?
Sometimes, every now and then, what’s good for the Jewish people and what’s good for you personally, they overlap. And this feels like one of those situations.

I’ve known that I wanted to be a rabbi since I was in 10th grade. I’ve always wanted to be in a place where family is important. A sense of community. A sense of people really taking their Judaism seriously. That can present itself in a variety of ways, and that’s what you find in this community of Providence.

How do you follow Rabbi Franklin?
You tread very carefully. And when you are following someone like Rabbi Franklin, you do it with modesty.

You have to figure out the culture of the institution. You have to figure out the things that sustain an institution and what are the things that are the benchmarks of this place.

As you bring your own flavor and approach, how does that jive or connect with what’s taking place here?
Institutions can’t change dramatically overnight, but they evolve. The way you ran a great institution 40 years ago, and even 20 years ago, has changed and is different from the way synagogues have to run now.

What are the great things that I have to continue and build upon? What are people looking for? How do you create a Jewish life that is vibrant in 2019? As engagement declines if you are operating under that same model as 30 years ago, it’s not going to endure.

’m interested in how to provide a sense of continuity with the past for the people who built these institutions and financed them. But also in how you are forward-thinking.

How do you keep traditions going and attract a younger demographic?
If we look at what’s happening with the independent minyan movement, there is a thirst for something that is authentic, meaningful and transformational. Our movement [Conservative Judaism] can provide that.
Torah has been giving meaning and transforming people’s lives for over 2,000 years. When people experience Shabbat as a time without a cellphone – as a time without technology – and connect with people, people crave that. People want the experience of being seen, being heard because of who they are as a person.

What is your vision going forward for this community?
It’s a three-pronged approach: connect, ignite, transform. That’s what we are in the business of.

We have to connect. We have to go to the people. We can’t wait for them to come to us.

We all have things that we are excited about. How do we ignite that spark in people via the synagogue? If what we are doing isn’t having an impact on the people of the world, we have to ask ourselves what we are doing.
It all starts with people. It all starts with relationships. People will sniff it out if it’s not authentic.

Tell me more about learning.
Over the first 100 days, we are targeting all the different demographics. We have been going to the different senior residences to meet and learn together.

When you learn with another person, it is a transformative experience for the teacher and the other person. Our tradition gives us a way to tackle life’s texts and gives us a rubric for meaningful conversations. Once you’ve learned together, you’ve broken the ice in a deeper way.

Being a rabbi to you is …
I think it’s a partnership. Being a partner and a teacher on life’s journey. There is a tremendous wealth of knowledge in our ritual life, in our spiritual life, and the more you access it, the more of a resource it can be.
I partner with people to learn. I enjoy doing it. It’s my hobby. Some people like hunting, some people enjoy sporting events. I like learning.

How do you look at social justice in your rabbinate?
There is a reason we are religiously mandated to look out for the weakest in our community. In all kinds of social issues, I imagine what the prophets would have said. They never championed the most popular. That informs my approach to social action and social justice. I like to think of [Rabbi] Abraham Joshua Heschel when he walked with Dr. King [in the Selma civil rights march]. I like to think that regular prayer was an important part of his life.

Do you see yourself getting involved in social action?
Certainly. How do you make social action an important part of your life? Interfaith work is incredibly important. We can choose to focus on what we disagree with or what we agree with. The alternative is much too scary. The immigration piece has taught me that everyone has a back story.

What kind of advice have you received?
From my wife: Always lead with kindness. When I retire, I hope people will remember me for being kind, punctual and succinct. Embedded in these are core values for me.

FRAN OSTENDORF (fostendorf@jewishallianceri.org) is the editor of Jewish Rhode Island.