Q & A with… Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

At the end of June, Rabbi Stephen L. Fuchs of West Hartford will step down from the pulpit of Congregation Beth Israel in West Harford and take the reins as the next president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ). In his new position, Fuchs, who has served as senior rabbi of the Reform congregation since 1997, will divide his time equally between North America and Israel, and will visit World Union communities around the world.
Rabbi Michael Pincus, who has served Beth Israel as assistant rabbi for the past several years, will become the congregation’s senior rabbi upon Fuchs’ departure.
The Ledger recently talked to Rabbi Fuchs about his thoughts upon leaving his pulpit and his new position.

How do you feel about leaving your congregation?
A: Well, it’s a wistful feeling. I love this congregation. It has been wonderful for me and my family. I feel like I have grown here professionally. Personally, I have enjoyed the people particularly at the temple. I am excited about Rabbi Pincus becoming our senior rabbi. I am proud that after we have worked together these seven years the congregation feels overwhelmingly that he is ready to take this big step – and I know he is ready. I think it is going to be just great for the community and I think he will flourish as well.
On the one hand, it is obviously a little sad to leave a community you have been an integral part of for 14 years. But I knew even before this opportunity came up that it was time for me to change course and I am just glad to see the community will be in such good hands. Of course, I am very excited about my own future. I am a little scared, too, because it is going to involve a whole new way of doing things and skill sets.

Tell us a little bit about your new job and some specifics about what you will be doing.
A: In a nutshell, I am going to become president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, which is the umbrella organization for Reform, Progressive and Reconstructionist Jewish life in 45 countries in six continents around the world. In North America, we are mostly a group that is seeking support and funding and we are affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism. But we also reach into communities in 45 countries and touch an estimated 1.8 million Jews in these areas.
There is so much to do. Of course, there is a struggle for rights for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel. It seems like everybody in Israel has religious freedom except Conservative and Reform Jews. That is vital to us. And we are growing. We now have 30-odd Reform congregations [in Israel]; we have a strong and growing independent Israel movement for Progressive Judaism and we want to support them in any way we can. But our main headquarters are in Jerusalem. There we have a center for seminars, for leadership training, youth development, wonderful educational tours for small groups that are tailored to specific needs. There is so much that goes on there.
One of the other areas of great activity, which interests me especially because of my experience here in West Hartford, is the desire to replant meaningful Jewish life in the former Soviet Union. Our work in resettling Jews from the former Soviet Union is a source of great pride to me. We just dedicated a beautiful new center in Minsk. I am looking forward to my first trip to the former Soviet Union, which should be in September. My father came from Germany, so the idea of seeing Jewish life replanted, especially non-Orthodox Jewish life on German soil is very exciting. Of course, our main office is in Israel. We will have an apartment in Israel and will be there probably for five months a year, the rest of the time spent traveling.
All of that said, a vital component of my work will be fundraising. I think the World Union for Progressive Judaism is maybe the best kept and most underfunded secret of Jewish life in the world. The presidency has been empty for a couple of years because they were hit very hard by the economic crisis. Now, after a very long, seeming at times endless, process of selection, they have asked me to do it and I hope the thoroughness in which they have undertaken in the process has resulted in a sense of confidence in their choice.
Going forward, I know we have to raise our profile and by raising the profile, hopefully we will be able to raise the needed funds for these vital programs in Israel and around the world.

Will you still have a home here in West Hartford?
A: Yes, for the time being. Mainly, the thought of cleaning out and moving twice at the same time is more than I can face at this moment. And since a lot of my work in North America will be traveling, I assume Bradley [International Airport] will be as good or better a gateway than New York in terms of convenience to some of these places. Over the next year we will have to monitor how much physical time I have to be in New York City where we have our other main office. If it turns out I have to be there a lot, we will probably have to move closer. But if we can maintain our home in West Hartford and at least some nominal time in the community, that will be great.

Do you have any parting words of advice for the community?
A: I would say to the community that it is easy to lose sight of the beauty of Jewish living and the important role it can play in our lives. To celebrate the Sabbath and the holy days and festivals, to build a sukkah – to engage – is the only way we are going to pass our traditions on to the next generation. If there is one thing that I have learned from history, it is that no outside force has ever been able to destroy us. We have always been able to resist and to do what is necessary to survive in the face of oppression and persecution. What scares me is apathy. People see the synagogue now all too often as an optional involvement, unless there is a simcha or special reason to go. I think we put ourselves in peril with our apathy.
I think the goal for the community is to succeed in overcoming the temptation to abandon Jewish life. We risk losing our Judaism if we don’t practice our Judaism – if we don’t infuse in our kids a sense of joy and love for Judaism.  We risk it at our own peril. When I see young parents bringing their kids to services – even if they fuss a little bit or if they have to take them out – at least they are making a statement that Judaism is important and we want to pass this on.

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