Temple of Israel’s new rabbi wants to be “spark” for his congregation’s growth

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By AMANDA GREENE Wilmington Faith and Values

The first seven months of Rabbi Paul Sidlofsky’s term at Temple of Israel, North Carolina’s oldest Jewish house of worship, have been a time of trust-building.

“This is a watershed moment in the congregation. There were some challenges in recent years, but now it’s a time for the congregation to reach new heights,” he said.

Sidlofsky is a patient man, putting off his own installation to take care of special services honoring members of the congregation in the fall. And then it was the High Holy Days. And then it was Hanukkah. So February 10 became the chosen day.

About 200 people packed into the Temple’s sanctuary for his installation Friday night including Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chairman Ted Davis, Jr., New Hanover County Board of Education member Elizabeth Redenbaugh and state representative Susi Hamilton.

Saffo spoke at the ceremony welcoming the rabbi and reminding attendees of the long line of politically influential Temple members including past Wilmington city mayors, state senators, philanthropists and businessmen.

Rabbi Brian Zimmerman, leader of the South District of the Union for Reform Judaism, performed the installation with the priestly blessing in Hebrew that is part of many major events in Jewish life.

Zimmerman, Rabbi Emeritus James Apple and Sidlofsky carried the scarlet velvet-robed Torah scrolls to the Ark in the sanctuary. One of the scrolls dates to 1876.

Zimmerman began the installation of his friend of 20 years with a joke.

“Yes, there are installation jokes,” he said. “Just because a goat has a beard, it doesn’t make him a rabbi. I don’t get to use that one often.”

Sidlofsky’s belated installation was more personal after getting to know the congregation the last half-year, the rabbi said. Many congregation members read Torah portions, including his son, Ben and wife, Wendy.

“I’ve always seen my role as more the spark rather than the flame,” he said. “I see the importance of valuing the past and balancing that with the need for newness.”

The idea of the rabbi as partner with the congregation resonates with Temple president Melanie Frank. Though he is the third rabbi for the temple in the last 10 years, Frank said she believes he is “the right fit.”

“Rabbi Paul was our first interview, and I remember thinking there is no one else,” she said. “You know when it’s the right fit.”

An educator at heart and by training, Sidlofsky has raised the profile of the Temple’s religious school, and its membership has risen almost 50 percent to 55 pupils.

The Temple’s membership has seen a boost of 20 percent as well.

“All the members need to be ambassadors for their congregation in the community and speak well of the congregation and with pride,” he said. “That, in turn, leads to more people coming.”

Plus, he’s concise, preferring sermons that last five to seven minutes.

“They say we love your sermons,” Sidlofsky chuckled. “They have a beginning and an end, and those are close together.”

For Sidlofsky, it’s about harvesting the talents of his members and making them feel welcome and a part of services. He’s created special services for families and new members, an entirely musical shabbat and intends to start a Jewish singles group for people ages 45 and up.

“Let tonight’s celebration be a springboard,” the rabbi said Friday. “May we continue together in sacred partnership to go from strength to strength.”

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