By Cindy Mindell
BLOOMFIELD – After 10 years as spiritual leader of Beth Hillel Synagogue, Rabbi Gary Atkins will retire at the end of June.
A self-described “wandering Jew,” Atkins says that his decade-long Bloomfield tenure is the longest he has lived anywhere in his adult life.
A Cleveland native, Atkins attended Dartmouth College from 1963 to 1966 and then enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. During his military service, he developed an interest in learning about his Judaism and, upon being discharged, entered the Jewish Theological Seminary. Ordained in 1974, he returned to the Air Force and served for three years as area Jewish chaplain for the Far East, stationed at Clark Air Base in the Philippines. While there, Atkins also provided support to Jewish personnel from all branches of the U.S. military on bases in Thailand and Taiwan.
He developed an outlook of interfaith cooperation, which has been part of his life ever since. He was honorably discharged from the Air Force in August 1977 and served as a pulpit rabbi until 1985, when he made aliyah with his wife and daughter.
The family returned to the U.S. in 1994, and Atkins became a pulpit rabbi in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut. In Connecticut and Florida, he worked as a Jewish chaplain for hospice organizations.
Atkins is also a trained and board-certified mohel, a graduate of the Brit Kodesh program of the Rabbinical Assembly and certified by the Brit Milah Commission of the Philadelphia Board of Rabbis. He continues to teach milah to physicians, together with Dr. Neil Pollock.
Since joining Beth Hillel in July 2006, Atkins has not only served the congregation but has also been involved in the community at large, both in Jewish and interfaith activities. He is the current president of the Greater Hartford Rabbinical Association.
“The synagogue has benefitted from Rabbi Atkins’s caring and dynamic leadership and community involvement,” says Alan Goodman, president of Beth Hillel. “He leaves behind a congregation ready to face the many challenges that all synagogues face today.”
For Beth Hillel, the biggest challenge is an aging, dwindling congregation – a demographic reality that led the synagogue board to put the building up for sale last year.
A Hartford-area church was set to purchase the property, offering Beth Hillel the option to rent a portion of the building. According to Goodman, however, the deal may fall through because the church is unable to meet a contingency clause in its mortgage application. Beth Hillel has been contacted by a second church interested in purchasing the synagogue building.
Don’t let the size of Beth Hillel’s membership fool you, says past-president David Baram, a Bloomfield attorney, who is also State Representative for District 15 (Bloomfield/Windsor). (Interestingly, Baram is one of several Beth Hillel members who hold significant elected offices within the state and town government.)
“We’re full of vitality and energy,” he says. “We’re smaller than we used to be, but the core group of members we have is the most dedicated and committed you would every want as members. We’ve got a very active sisterhood and brotherhood; we have minyans most mornings and evenings; we’re about to hire a cantor for the High Holidays…so things are moving along at full steam.”
Moving along…and moving ahead. Beth Hillel’s Future Planning Committee recently distributed a survey to congregants, outlining several options. Members will indicate their preference from among several options. Choices include: merging with another area synagogue, renovating an existing building, constructing a new home, or sharing a facility with another Jewish organization.
Synagogue leaders are scouting locations along the Bloomfield-West Hartford line – closer, they hope, to a source of new members, but still within easy driving distance for older congregants.
“If we do move and find another building or build a new one, we hope it will be in an area where we can attract a lot of unaffiliated Jews and young families to join us so that we can start growing again,” Goodman says.
“There’s a lot of excitement and interest because we have the opportunity to shape the future of the synagogue whatever that might be,” says Baram. “Our members are truly committed to Beth Hillel and want to see the best for it. We are smaller but we are strong, vibrant and still a major benefit to the Jewish community in the Greater Hartford area.”
Meanwhile, the congregation has begun a search process for an interim rabbi to succeed Atkins and guide Beth Hillel as it determines next steps.
Atkins, who is 70, says that the Mishnah declares his age a good time to retire. “Pirke Avot teaches that there’s something special for each 10 years of our lives,” he says.
“Seventy is a time of seva – some people translate [the Hebrew word] negatively as ‘gray hair,’ but in the Birkat HaMazon [Grace after Meals], seva appears in the phrase, ‘v’achalta v’savaata,’ you ate and you fulfilled your appetite. I feel that I have fulfilled my rabbinate.”
Atkins and his wife, Iris, plan to move closer to their daughter and grandson, who live in New Hampshire.