In an email sent on Tuesday, Dec. 4, Touro Synagogue president Teri Hunter and Senior Rabbi Alexis Berk have both announced that the rabbi has elected to take a new position as the senior rabbi at Temple Solel in San Diego, CA., effective in June of 2019.
Hunter confirmed that Berk is leaving prior to the end of her current contract and that the decision was “unanticipated.” Berk’s impending departure will occur at the end of her tenth year at Touro Synagogue.
In the letter to the congregation, Hunter emphasized that the congregation is anchored by its other clergy and that they are proceeding with a transition. “Although Rabbi Berk’s decision to leave Touro was unanticipated, we have been able to set in motion the immediate steps to begin the search for our next Senior Rabbi,” she wrote. A search committee has been established and the congregation has already been in touch with the placement office at the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the rabbinic arm of the Union for Reform Jewry, according to Hunter.
The local Reform rabbinate has never seen as many exits and entrances in as short a period of time. Emeritus rabbi status was given last year to Temple Sinai’s Rabbi Ed Paul Cohn after 29 years and to Gates of Prayer’s Rabbi Robert Loewy after 34 years this summer.
Rabbi David Gerber, who followed Loewy, had just started the first year of his initial contract with Gates of Prayer when Temple Sinai Rabbi Matthew Reimer announced he was not renewing his initial three-year contract at Temple Sinai. Thus, Temple Sinai Cantor Joel Colman will be the longest-serving Jewish clergy in the Greater New Orleans area next summer when Berk exits. Associate Rabbi Todd Silverman, who joined Touro three years ago, will be the area’s longest-serving Reform rabbi once Berk and Reimer leave. Associate Rabbi Alexis Pinsky served terms at both Gates of Prayer and Touro Synagogue in recent years and has filled in at Northshore Jewish Congregation (NJC) this past High Holiday season. She has since moved away from the area.
The revolving rabbinic door has been turning outside the Reform world as well. Recently, Rabbi Gabriel Greenberg of Congregation Beth Israel, who had been hired in 2012, announced his intention to leave his synagogue as well. Rabbi Deborah Silver began her current term at Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation in 2016.
While Rabbi Berk was the first woman selected to be selected a senior rabbi at a major New Orleans congregation, NJC chose Rabbi Julie Kozlow as the first woman to lead any area congregation in 2007. Rabbi Kozlow left NJC two years later, a year after Berk arrived in 2008 from Nashville, TN, where she has been the Hillel rabbi at Vanderbilt University and the director of congregational enrichment at Temple Ohabai Shalom.
Berk will be returning to San Diego, the home of the Univesity of California campus from which she graduated with honors in sociology and where she met her husband Bob as an undergraduate. In the letter announcing her departure from Touro, Rabbi Berk acknowledged they have numerous family and friends in San Diego, the former home of her father of blessed memory. “We travel to San Diego several times a year to be with family and friends there. I have felt a pull toward the possibility of living there for quite some time. I always knew that for this to happen, I would have to leave Touro,” she wrote.
She will be joining her former colleague, Cantor Billy Tiep, who left New Orleans to move back to his native California in 2010, where he has been the cantor at Temple Solel in Cardiff by the Sea, a suburban San Diego community, ever since. Cantor Tiep was featured at this year’s Jazz Fest Shabbat as the spiritual leader in charge, the task usually assigned to the congregation’s cantor. Touro filled its vacancy for the cantor position in August with the selection of Cantor Kevin Margolius.
Following her ordination from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati in 2000, Berk relocated to Nashville, where she became an educator at Temple Micah for five years prior to being selected to lead Touro in 2008.
(Editor’s note: The CCJN has reached out to Rabbi Berk to conduct an interview with her with regard to what will be an 11-year tenure at the synagogue, as we have done traditionally with every rabbi who has served our community. We hope to feature that in 2019.)