So much for making plans.
When Rabbi Melvin N. Sirner arrived at Beth El Synagogue Center in New Rochelle as the assistant rabbi, straight from the Jewish Theological Seminary, he expected to stay a few years and move on.
Forty-three years later, Rabbi Sirner is indeed moving on, after serving in the only congregational post he’s ever held. The congregation elected Rabbi Sirner to the position in 1976 when the senior rabbi retired.
Rabbi Sirner is not the only Westchester rabbi stepping away from the full-time pulpit during this retirement season; other long-serving Westchester rabbis who are retiring include Rabbi David Schuck of Pelham Jewish Center; Rabbi Mark Sameth of Pleasantville Community Synagogue; Rabbi Daniel Schweber of Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale; Rabbi Barry Kente of Greenburgh Hebrew Center in Dobbs Ferry; Rabbi Eli Kohl of Mt. Kisco Hebrew Congregation, and Rabbi Lee Paskind of First Hebrew Congregation in Peekskill.
But as the longest-serving leader of one of the county’s most significant — and largest — Conservative congregations, Rabbi Sirner holds a special place among his congregants, as well as in the larger community.
As Elliot Forchheimer, executive director of the Westchester Jewish Council said, “This year marks Rabbi Sirner’s 43rd year at Beth El Synagogue and as 43 is a prime number, so too has Rabbi Sirner been a prime Westchester rabbi — prime in his dedication to his congregants, to his colleagues and to the greater community at large, and with an unmatched sense of mentschlikeit.”
The bond between Rabbi Sirner and his congregation has been strong, and satisfying.
One of the most gratifying aspects of his long career, said Rabbi Sirner, was officiating at lifecycle events for multiple generations, such as the weddings of parents, b’nai mitzvah for their children, weddings for those same children, and even the b’nai mitzvah of that next generation.
For Rabbi Sirner, making sure that the community felt connected to the synagogue, and one another, was a compelling value.
“I’m always concerned about building a sense of community, that people in a shul should feel that the individual matters,” he said. “One of the most important things a synagogue can do is making sure nobody is just a number.”
During his tenure, Rabbi Sirner has overseen significant change, along with continuity.
“When I came here, bat mitzvah students chanted on Friday nights,” said Rabbi Sirner. The synagogue went through a process of moving “from a service that didn’t allow women to participate to a fully egalitarian synagogue,” one of his proudest accomplishments.
The synagogue features two Shabbat morning services, one traditional, and one modeled more like a chavurah, to embrace the entire community.
“People have very different religious backgrounds,” he said. “We have a large enough base that on a regular basis we can have a learning discussion Shabbat morning. There’s more than one religious experience on Shabbat. It’s a virtue to have more than one service.”
Nonetheless, the entire community comes together to share Kiddush. The welcoming spirit of the community is reflected in small touches, like expanding the number of parking spaces for disabled congregants, or for families with small children, who have to negotiate strollers and other equipment.
Despite his strong legacy and many successes, Rabbi Sirner acknowledges the challenges his congregation, and other non-Orthodox synagogues, confront.
“In the non-Orthodox community, it’s not self-evident that there’s a need to join a synagogue,” said Rabbi Sirner. “That’s much more so than a generation ago.”
While there is much talk about outreach to the unaffiliated, Rabbi Sirner cautioned, “There are also issues with in-reach. You dare not ignore the motivated, interested people who are already in your community. You cannot take them for granted. You have to give them meaningful programs and meaningful religious services.”
As part of his philosophy, Rabbi Sirner firmly believes — referencing Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — “You don’t only learn from the printed word. People represent texts of integrity.”
Rabbi Sirner, a Chicago native, is remaining in the community, at least for now. Two of his three adult children are in New York, while a third child, and first grandchild, are in Atlanta.
Rabbi Sirner said his immediate plans, post-retirement, are still up in the air. “I’m reading a couple of books about retirement,” he said. “I’m finding my own way.”