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New Beginnings

After 7 years as assistant rabbi, Evan Schultz takes over B’nai Israel’s top spot

By Stacey Dresner

BRIDGEPORT – When Evan Schultz was in college he thought he might become a lawyer.

“In my junior year of college I was studying for the LSAT exam preparing to go to law school and I remember closing the book and thinking, ‘Something tells me this is not what I am meant to do with my life. I don’t think I’m going to be very good at it,’” Schultz recalls with a laugh.

Luckily for Schultz – and his congregants at B’nai Israel in Bridgeport – he found his true calling in the rabbinate.

On Friday evening, Nov. 15, Schultz will be installed as Congregation B’nai Israel’s senior rabbi. But he is not new to the congregation – he served as assistant rabbi at B’nai Israel for seven years under Rabbi James Prosnit, who retired in June.

Prosnit and his fellow rabbi emeritus at B’nai Israel, Rabbi Arnold Sher, will speak at the installation, along with Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman of Hebrew Union College, who was Schultz’s liturgy professor during his time at rabbinical school. 

The event will begin with a celebratory dinner at 6 p.m., followed by the Shabbat service and installation at 7:30 p.m. and, finally, a dessert oneg.

On Sunday, Nov. 17 at noon, a “Fun Run Celebration” will be held for Rabbi Schultz, a runner who has participated in several marathons. The day will include a one-mile run/walk, an ice cream social and live music by the Electric Sanctuary Band.

“It will be a very happy and special occasion for sure,” said Shari Nerreau, president of B’nai Israel. “Rabbi Schultz is very well-loved and the congregation is excited that he is being installed as the 19th rabbi at B’nai Israel. In the seven years that he has been part of the community he has touched the lives of so many and we are thrilled that we will be officially installing him to lead our way into the future.”

 

Strong Jewish upbringing

Born in Queens, New York to a Conservative Jewish family, Schultz moved around a great deal when he was young due to his father’s work in sales. The family – including his parents and his sister Alyssa – moved from Queens to New Jersey to Pennsylvania, finally settling in Newton, Massachusetts.

“It made me a pretty adaptable human being in my later years, which was good,” he says.

“I was raised in a very proud Jewish house. Wherever we lived we always belonged to a synagogue. It was really important to my family,” he says.

Schultz attended Solomon Schechter day schools in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania and then Newton, Massachusetts, as well as Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire,” which he calls “a really influential experience.” 

Schultz also enjoyed attending Prozdor’s teen Judaic classes and was on his United Synagogue Youth (USY) board.

“Judaism was always a huge part of our life,” he stresses. “It was a very strong Jewish upbringing.”

It was while he was a student at Brandeis University, majoring in Judaic Studies, that Schultz entertained the idea of becoming a lawyer.

“I wanted to be an environmental lawyer so I could take down big companies polluting the earth. And I realized at some point I was just not destined to do that – that perhaps I was a little too nice to take down big corporations.”

Meanwhile, he thoroughly enjoyed his studies at Brandeis.

“I loved the sort of intellectual aspect of Judaism – I love reading, I love studying, I love engaging in contemporary topics,” Schultz says. “I looked around at all of the aspects of my life that I loved, and someone – I can’t remember whom – planted in my head that I should look into becoming a rabbi. That sent me down a different path of exploring seriously the idea of becoming a rabbi.”

First, he and Jenny Goldstein, who would later become his wife, spent the year 2003 volunteering with the Joint Distribution Committee’s Jewish Service Corps to help the Jews of Izmir, Turkey, a community of around 1,500. 

“There was no full-time rabbi there so, in some ways, Jenny and I became the rabbinic figures…We taught in the Hebrew school; Jenny formed a Jewish women’s group. We were advisors to their youth group…It was a great experience and we have such close friends from living there. It was great to live abroad in a Jewish community with such different ways of expressing their Judaism and living Jewish lives,” he says. 

Schultz also worked at MIT Hillel for a year and at the Central Synagogue in New York City as a teacher in its religious school for three years, where he had the  opportunity to shadow the rabbis there and learn from them. 

Along the way, he says he “shifted” from Conservative to Reform Judaism, and became involved with United Reform Judaism and the movement’s Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

 

Settling in Bridgeport

He attended Hebrew Union College (HUC) in New York, where he was ordained, and arrived at B’nai Israel as associate rabbi in 2012 working – and learning – under Jim Prosnit.

“[Rabbi Prosnit] exemplifies ‘rabbi’ in every sense of the word,” Schultz says. “ I loved working with him. I came out of HUC looking for a mentor, because I knew I wanted to be a senior rabbi one day. Rachel Gurvitz, who was at B’nai Israel before me, said, ‘If you want to learn how to be a senior rabbi, come work with Jim Prosnit. He will teach you how to do it.”

Gurvitz was right, says Schultz.

“He treated me like a colleague. When he had questions or things he was thinking about, he would bring me in, ask my opinion, show me ‘this is how I do it.’ He would give me opportunities to get in front of the congregation and offered me any critiques or advice.”

Prosnit even handed the main sanctuary service to Schultz during his first Yom Kippur at B’nai Israel.

“He put me on the bimah on Yom Kippur morning – [as if to say], ‘I trust you at our biggest service of the year,’ and he would go out to our tent service,” he recalls. “I thought that was amazing. There are not so many rabbis who say to their assistant, you take the main sanctuary on Yom Kippur – I trust you to do that.’ I think he wanted to set the tone that we’re both everyone’s rabbis.”

Prosnit said it was only natural for him to entrust Schultz with the congregation.

“From the very beginning it was clear that he had all of the knowledge and personal skills that were needed to be a very successful congregational rabbi,” Prosnit says. “He shows his love for synagogue. He has a fresh vision as to what synagogues need at this stage of congregational life and his tremendous musicality has really enriched us too.”

Indeed, Rabbi Schultz can be found with his guitar at most Friday night Shabbat services, strumming along as Cantor Sheri Blum sings the prayer, accompanied by a group of likewise musical congregants playing a variety of instruments. 

“I always had a love of music,” he says. “I credit my parents, especially my mom. We always had music playing in the house. She got me into the Beatles at a very young age, as well as Jewish music.” 

He received his first guitar for his bar mitzvah. 

“For me, holding the guitar is definitely an aspect of how I pray and express my spirituality. It’s just a great tool to draw people in and draw people closer to the melodies and the words that are in the prayers. It has become a big piece of who I am and how I love to engage people and worship. Music is part of the fabric of the synagogue.” 

 

Focusing on outreach

As assistant rabbi he was often in B’nai Israel’s preschool, playing his guitar and singing with the children. Busier now, he still manages to visit the preschool and engage in outreach to young parents. He and his wife Jenny, now vice president at Americares in Stamford, and their three young children are themselves a part of that demographic.

“Our preschool director, Alexa Cohen, and I have been trying to do more outreach,” he explains. “We have a vibrant preschool with over 100 kids here. So it’s really important to me now as senior rabbi to go every other week into the classrooms and visit with the kids and try to build those relationships. Before a family graduates preschool we try to maker sure Alexa and I have a conversation with them, hoping that they will stay involved in the community and be part of the synagogue.”

In the last year and a half, Schultz has worked with some of the synagogue’s younger population to create a 40-and-under impact giving model.

“People from that age group – the Millenials – can have a little more say in their giving by earmarking their giving to certain parts of the operating budget.” It’s been working out well,” he says.

 

Everything old is new again

Despite the seven years he has already spent at B’nai Israel, Schultz says that things are a bit different now that he is senior rabbi.

“I’ve been joking that I just worry more about the well-being of the congregation, which I think comes with being the senior rabbi,” he reflects. “It’s working even more closely with the senior leadership of the congregation, thinking more deeply and strategically about the congregation and the future of the community.

“You realize there is a real opportunity in this role to think intentionally about our community, about who we want to be and where we want to be.”

The installation service of Rabbi Evan Schultz: Friday, Nov. 15, dinner at 6 p.m., followed by Shabbat service and installation at 7:30 p.m. RSVP by Nov. 8. Dinner: $25/adult; $10/children 10 and under. 

One-Mile Fun Run/Walk and Ice Cream Social: Sunday, Nov. 17, at noon. $5/individual; $18/family.

To purchase or to register: www.cbibpt.org.

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