Rabbi Garten will remain in Ottawa as the Reform congregation’s first rabbi emeritus.
Rabbi Steven Garten, Temple Israel’s longest serving spiritual leader, will retire on June 30, after more than 19 years as spiritual leader of Ottawa’s Reform congregation.
In a message to the congregation late last year, Rabbi Garten said he wanted to give Temple Israel sufficient notice of his retirement date so the congregation could prepare and conduct a thorough search for his successor.
“I will continue my association with Temple and my many friends in the congregation and in the Ottawa Jewish community through my position as rabbi emeritus,” he wrote. “I will be 66 years of age next year and, after being on call 24/7 for 39 years, look forward to focusing on my teaching and learning, and, of course, golf.”
Earlier in his career, Rabbi Garten worked in Toronto for 17 years at Holy Blossom Temple and Leo Baeck Day School before going to California in 1992.
“The California earthquake was in January 1995, and we decided we didn’t want to stay there,” he said. “The first choice was to come back to Canada. Temple Israel was looking for a rabbi, and we found each other – in spite of the weather differences.”
Under Rabbi Garten’s leadership, Temple Israel has grown in its outreach to unaffiliated Jews, its many social justice activities, strengthened interfaith dialogue between the congregation and Christians and Muslims, and supported a strong and vibrant supplementary religious school and youth group.
In addition, there has been growth in Thursday morning minyanim and Shabbat and Erev Shabbat service attendance, well-attended Torah study classes and conversion classes, joyous festival celebrations, and High Holiday services that bring virtually all Temple Israel congregants together.
The bond between Temple Israel and the State of Israel has also grown under Rabbi Garten’s leadership. Nearly 220 congregants have travelled to Israel on missions guided by the rabbi.
Inspired by his vision, Temple Israel now conducts interfaith marriages and has a faithful and strong component of interfaith couples in the congregation, ensuring a Jewish education for their children.
Under Rabbi Garten’s leadership, Temple Israel has welcomed alternative Jewish families, such as gay and lesbian, transgendered and interracial, as well as singles.
“As a congregation, we’ve also been in the forefront of social justice issues outside the Jewish community,” he said. “We continue to have long-term relationships with homeless shelters, and non-Jewish social justice projects and aboriginal communities. For Africa, we raised $15,000 for mosquito nets, $13,000 for solar cookers and much more.”
All of those issues have spin-offs, such as changing the rules at the cemeteries to allow non-Jewish spouses and a progression of changes, he said.
“Lastly,” the rabbi said, “our congregational relationship with Israel is second to none. The varieties of speakers we host along the spectrum of thought; there have been notable changes over the course of time.”
“As an inclusive chevra, Temple Israel is at the forefront of connecting within and without the Jewish community in Ottawa,” said Temple Israel President Mark Bowman.
“At a time when religious organizations are witnessing declining participation, Temple Israel has maintained its membership at 350 to 370 families, and we are looking forward to growth.”
Past president Lorne Rachlis has known Rabbi Garten since his arrival at Temple Israel and got to know him very well during the last three years as he served as the congregation’s president.
“He is my spiritual leader, but I also consider him to be my friend,” says Rachlis. “He has been gracious, opening his house to celebrate festivals, always willing to talk, and has extensive biblical, Talmudic and historical knowledge, which he shares willingly and well. His design and leadership of this fall’s Temple tour of Israel demonstrated his kindness, caring and curiosity as he made sure all 25 of us on the tour were well looked after, well briefed and well satisfied.”
Rachlis says he is delighted Rabbi Garten will still be involved in Temple Israel life as rabbi emeritus.
Rabbi Garten is currently on his usual winter leave, but will return to active duty to complete the annual cycle of events before taking formal retirement in June.
“My plans are to spend less time in committee and board meetings and more time travelling and teaching. I’d like to continue to lead trips to Israel, and I want to do more teaching,” he said. “Not having the schedule of a congregational rabbi allows that to happen.”
Temple Israel has embarked on “more than a search for a new rabbi, it is a search for ourselves,” said Bowman. “It is a time of transition, not only in determining what the community wants in a new rabbi, but envisioning the next era of our congregation.”
Bowman said the Central Conference of American Rabbis has established a unique and highly successful approach and process to assist temples who are in transition.
“The approach is to hire an interim rabbi, sometimes called a ‘transitional rabbi’ on a short defined contract of one to two years,” he said. “The process has proven extremely successful, particularly in our situation after a long-serving rabbi retires.”
Temple Israel has formed its Interim Rabbi Search Committee.
Rabbi Garten says he’s looking forward to remaining in Ottawa. His son and future daughter-in-law live here and his daughter lives in Washington D.C., “an easy drive or flight to visit her.”
He and his wife Lisa are pleased he will still be here to officiate at weddings and funerals and more.
“I look forward to still being involved in the life of the people with whom I’ve created wonderful relationships.”
Temple Israel will announce celebrations in honour of Rabbi Garten’s retirement in the spring.