KENWOOD — The congregants of KAM Isaiah Israel think they may have found the perfect rabbi in Frederick Reeves.
“He does a Torah study on Saturdays that will just knock your socks off,” said Robert Nevel, president of the congregation and co-chair of the committee that brought Reeves in to lead the synagogue after a long transition.
Reeves, 42, was officially installed as rabbi of the synagogue across the street from President Barack Obama’s Kenwood home on Friday.
“Everyone knows where we are,” Reeves joked about the benefits of working across the street from the president’s house. (He did admit, however, that some are dissuaded from coming by the Secret Service’s concrete barriers that say do not enter.)
Reeves takes the helm of a congregation that includes such notable Hyde Parkers as University of Chicago President Robert Zimmer, but which seemed to lose some of its forcefulness with the retirement of Rabbi Arnold Wolf in 2000, who led the congregation for 20 years.
“People think the rabbi stands up and talks about the issues of the moment in the context of Judaic thought, but it’s a lot more than that,” said Jim Bloom, who serves on the board of the 1100 E. Hyde Park Blvd. synagogue.
KAM Isaiah Israel has a long tradition of social justice, and Neves and others were enthused to find in the pool of candidates a Southern rabbi with a similar tradition.
“They have a long history in civil rights,” Reeves said of his eight years at The Temple in Atlanta, Ga., which was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1958 and continues to play a large role in bridging the black and Jewish communities in the South.
Reeves said he was happy to find a familiar hospitality in Hyde Park and Kenwood.
“The South is famous for hospitality and one of the things I wondered was whether I would find that as I came north,” Reeves said. A Richmond, Va., native, he joked he became son-in-law of the year when he accepted the position, which put his wife Lauren and four kids closer to his in-laws in north suburban Barrington.
He attended the the College of William & Mary in Virginia, obtaining a degree in French literature. Reeves holds a master's degree in Hebrew Letters and was ordained at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
Though the new rabbi and the congregation may be on the same track to move forward, Reeves said the synagogue faces many challenges, including a shrinking congregation.
“People were joiners in the ‘50s,” Reeves said of the ease of building a congregation in the past. “They’re not so much today. It’s more of a fee-for-service mentality.”
He said it’s frustrating for him when he’s approached about officiating at a bar mitzvah by someone who sees it more as a party than the beginning of a journey into the Jewish faith.
“If you’re just paying to do the ceremony, that’s not really Judaism,” Reeves said.
He said he thinks trust in organizations and institutions is on the decline, especially among young people, in a way that is sapping communities. He said sites like Facebook and Twitter are useful, but are not a replacement.
“It’s called a virtual community for a reason, because it’s a proxy for something else,” Reeves said. “Virtual interactions cut away all your ability to empathize.”
He said he has embraced online tools as a way to bring people to KAM Isaiah Israel, but not an end in and of themselves.
“The Talmud is all about the back and forth between different voices,” Reeves said. “That interaction, that’s what’s important.”
He said valuable interactions can be found in the time spent working together in the synagogue’s garden growing food for soup kitchens, in the face-to-face debates about the faith and the shared experience of music and worship.
This thoughtfulness is what Nevel said prompted a unanimous vote by the search committee to choose Reeves.
“He’s a wonderfully engaging person,” Nevel said. “It became apparent in the first conversation that he was a great candidate.”