By DEAN M. SHAPIRO, Special to the CCJN
As he sat down to begin this interview, Daniel Sherman asked, “Okay, so what do I need to know about New Orleans?”
When told that, first and foremost, he needs to become a Saints fan, his response was, “Well, that shouldn’t be too hard. I’ve always been a sports fan.”
Born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Sherman, 47, noted that his family was originally from Pittsburgh, so he grew up a Steelers fan. “But I think I can learn to root for the Saints as well. They’ll be my NFC team,” he quickly added.
As the newly appointed tenth senior rabbi at Temple Sinai, Sherman has already put the Saints’ upcoming season on his calendar, with an eye toward not scheduling any important synagogue-related functions on the days when the team plays at home. And there’s a good possibility that he might be glued to the TV set or maybe even in the Superdome watching live.
As for getting better acquainted about other things that are uniquely New Orleans, Sherman was eager to learn about his new home and the congregation over which he will officiate. He started officially with his inaugural Shabbos service at Temple Sinai this past Friday evening at 6:15.
“This will be my first time on the bimah for Shabbat service and it’s a special bimah to be a part of,” said Sherman in his interview prior to the service. Sherman’s position became effective on July 1. “I’m anxiously looking forward to it and to be working with Cantor (Joel) Colman. We’ve been talking about it for a while…and I’m excited.”
Accompanying Sherman in the relocation to New Orleans is his wife, Morgan; his son, Shai, who will be starting ninth grade at Benjamin Franklin High School this fall; and his daughter, Janna, who will be in sixth grade at Metairie Country Day School.
“As far as plans go, my goal is to learn as much about our community as I can,” Sherman continued. “I want to understand our traditions and our history. I want to know where we are and how we got here and after that we’ll start planning where we want to go. And there’s a lot to learn.”
Sherman has already begun that process, meeting with key people involved in the synagogue’s day-to-day functions, as well as its governing board and committee members. “I look forward to continuing to get to know everyone in the congregation,” he said. “All of the families and individuals. I love the fact that so many people feel so proud about their temple and that’s a good sign. We’re going to try and keep that going.”
During the month of August, Sherman will be officiating over congregants from not only Temple Sinai, but those from the other two Reform temples in the New Orleans area that are on summer rotation. After that, he said, comes the planning for the High Holy Days that begin at sundown September 29 with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Yom Kippur on October 9.
“We also have to plan for the beginning of a new school year, a new calendar year and the programmatic year,” Sherman said. “A lot happens in synagogues behind the scenes over the summer. I still have a little bit more unpacking to do but we’re making progress.”
Rabbi Sherman comes to Temple Sinai from Temple Dor Dorim in Weston, Florida, a suburb of Fort Lauderdale, where he was its senior rabbi. Prior to that he was the rabbi at the Tree of Life Congregation in Columbia, South Carolina for nine years. Following his 1999 ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, Sherman served as an assistant and later an associate rabbi at Temple Shalom in Naples, Florida until 2006.
Sherman follows in the footsteps of his father who served as rabbi for Temple Israel of Tulsa for 37 years. Though not generally known as a major hub for Judaism, the Tulsa synagogue’s congregation numbered between 400 and 500 families, Sherman noted. During his growing-up years he was confirmed and bar mitzvah-ed there. “It was an active community. If you wanted to be Jewish in Tulsa, Oklahoma you had to get involved,” he added.
“The temple was my extended family,” he said. “We didn’t have grandparents, aunts and uncles in town. The congregation was my family and the temple was my second home growing up.”
Sherman also spoke highly of his experiences officiating in Columbia, the capital of a state also not normally associated with a preponderance of Jewish citizens. That congregation, he said, had between 250 and 300 families. “I had families that were third and fourth generation as part of that community and I enjoyed getting to know the families and individuals that made up the community,” he said.
Sherman’s congregations in Florida were larger, owing largely to the massive influx of Jews from the northern states that began several generations ago. However, he noted that, despite a large Jewish population in southern Florida, “The affiliation rates were down because many people there don’t feel like they have to be a part of a synagogue, especially in order to have Jewish friends and have a Jewish community. We had to work a little bit harder at it there.”
As for what he has learned about New Orleans so far and its approximately 10,000 Jewish residents, Sherman said, “I think this is an exciting time for the Jewish community here.”
Sherman indicated that he will continue the traditions established by his predecessors at Temple Sinai in reaching out to all segments of the New Orleans community, including clergy and followers of other faiths. These include the city’s sizable African American community, as well as its rapidly growing Islamic population. He also plans to continue hosting cultural and educational functions and guest speakers in the sanctuary hall as previous rabbis have done.
Praising the work of his predecessors, Sherman said, “They had wonderful reputations for being very involved in the welfare of the community. I’d like to have that connection as well. When I was getting to know Temple Sinai it was made it very clear to me that it is an important part of New Orleans. You cannot separate Temple Sinai from New Orleans nor can one separate New Orleans from Temple Sinai.”
A firm supporter of Israel and its right to exist, Sherman said he hopes to organize and host trips there for Temple Sinai congregants and others with an interest in exploring the Holy Land.
Celebrating its 150th anniversary as the city’s oldest Jewish congregation, Temple Sinai’s history and traditions will be part of an ongoing theme this year, Sherman said.
“Our goals will continue to be that there should always be something for everyone,” Sherman emphasized. “We want our young families with young kids to know that there’s a lot happening at Temple Sinai specifically for them. We want to have the best religious education programs for our kids. We want to have adult education for our community. We want folks to come here and celebrate holidays and Shabbat and life cycle events. We want Temple Sinai to feel like people’s home, their community, their family.
“Everyone should feel welcome here at Temple Sinai,” Sherman concluded. “And I think the congregation has done a very wonderful job at that. Our house should be a house for all people. We take that seriously here.”