By Stacey Dresner
NEW HAVEN – Rabbi Jon-Jay Tilsen, spiritual leader of Congregation Beth El – Keser Israel (BEKI) in New Haven for the past 27 years, will leave the Conservative synagogue at the end of February.
Yaron Lew, president of BEKI, said that Tilsen’s departure is the result of 18 months of evaluation by the BEKI board of directors in planning the congregation’s future.
“Rabbi Tilsen has been a valuable member of our community for many years,” Lew said. “That being said, we have been going through an evaluation process of not just the rabbi but also the changing needs of the congregation. As a result, the BEKI board determined, after much discussion and review – which involved the board, the rabbi and the congregation – that now would be a good time for us to move in a different direction. Consequently, the BEKI Board decided not to renew Rabbi Tilsen’s contract when it expires in August. We extend to Rabbi Tilsen our heartfelt thanks for his 27 years of service at BEKI, and we wish him all the best wherever his next steps take him.”
Rabbi Tilsen has decided to use his accrued vacation, conference and professional days starting March 1, rather than stay until his contract expires.
“Serving the BEKI and Greater New Haven community has been a pleasure and a privilege,” Rabbi Tilsen said. “After concluding 28 years of service to this congregation, I will retain the life-long fringe benefit of enduring friendships and fellowship in Torah.”
Rabbi Alan Lovins, a longtime member of BEKI and one of the several rabbis in the congregation, was chairman of the search committee that found and hired Rabbi Tilsen 27 years ago.
“We hired him with unanimous approval and felt that he would be excellent for our congregation and he was,” Rabbi Lovins said. “We had an interesting congregation, but unity was difficult to achieve. And he did it. By keeping kind of a low profile, but being there in a strong way too, he forged our synagogue membership into a community.
“It’s a wonderful congregation and it has been growing since he came and that’s not true of other synagogues around us; and he is responsible for that,” Lovins continued. “One of the things that my wife and I have always appreciated is that Jon-Jay does need to have a lot of kovod [honors]. He did not require that. He did not need to get the last word. We have a lot of rabbis in the congregation, and he has been very welcoming to all of the rabbis and has been happy to share his pulpit with them.
“He was very generous about letting other people, who were not rabbis also share the pulpit with him. One of the things I really appreciated, because I think it is rare, is that people said what they thought on the pulpit and he didn’t have to get up and have a last word about it. And if it was controversial, that was okay too. As a result I think we have had a stimulating and well-educated congregation.”
Lisa Stanger agrees that by stepping back a bit, Tilsen has enabled “others to lead and learn. It is unusual in a pulpit rabbi and worked beautifully for BEKI, producing a congregation of volunteers and leaders.”
Stanger, the executive director of the Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven, also remembers the first time she, her husband Greg Coldoner, and their then three-month-old daughter stepped foot into Congregation Beth El Keser Israel (BEKI) in 2001.
“We had moved to town a few months earlier and had not joined a synagogue yet. On 9/11 my husband’s stepmother was killed – she worked on the 96th floor of Tower One of the World Trade Center. That Friday night we needed a synagogue and we walked into an unfamiliar building and asked a rabbi we did not know whether one sits shiva for a step-parent …what about a non-Jewish step-parent, and when would it start if there is no burial?” Stanger recalled. “Rabbi Tilsen, not knowing my husband, provided the words and advice he needed at that time.”
A native of Mendota Heights, Minnesota, Tilsen graduated from Columbia College in 1984 with a B.A in Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures and Political Science. He received his MA in Interdisciplinary Judaica Studies in 1986 from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he later attended rabbinical school and from which he was ordained as a rabbi in 1991.
Besides working at BEKI, Rabbi Tilsen is an appointee to the Board of the Jewish Foundation of Greater New Haven (the longest serving person on that board), and also serves as the Rav HaMakhshir (Kashrut Authority) for Camp Laurelwood.
He is a member of the Rabbinical Assembly, the global organization of 1,600 Masorti-Conservative rabbis, and of the New Haven Area Rabbinical Assembly, the local organization of Masorti-Conservative rabbis.
Lew said that plans for expressing the congregation’s thanks to Rabbi Tilsen are underway.